If there’s one word to describe the rise of Pittsburgh Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett, it’s “meteoric.”
Before the Clemson game, Pickett was starting to garner some attention and became a light part of the Heisman Trophy conversation. The quarterback has put up big numbers and has had some more than impressive moments this season—he’s passed for at least 300 yards on four separate occasions and his season-high completion percentage stands at 85.7% this year. That’s plenty enough, but Pickett and Pitt made an even bigger statement in the team’s 27-17 win over the Tigers—a team that has been dominant in recent years past.
Pickett, who completed 25-of-39 passes for 302 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions in the win, feels like this was a sort of “validation” game for them—but the remaining ones on the slate bear just as much importance.
“This was one that we really wanted to go get,” Pickett said. “Obviously there are more down the stretch… as you keep winning the games keep getting bigger. So this Miami game is a huge one as well. That was definitely validation for us though, getting that win (over Clemson).”
One of the most interesting things about watching Pickett this year is just how quickly and steadily he’s made his way into the spotlight. So, what exactly goes into that? A large part of it comes down to a high level of comfort in the offense. Comfort breeds confidence—one of the most important traits a quarterback can have, tangibles and intangibles alike.
“I feel like I’ve made great strides throughout my career, and especially this year. Just taking another step in all categories, in all facets of it. Mentally, physically, I just feel really comfortable right now. I feel like part of it has been mastering the offense, and then myself and my teammates, I think we’ve improved drastically over these past couple seasons. We were building toward this and that kind of helped with the push to come back. It’s my third year in this system and I’ve got a lot of really talented players around me.”
Pitt has the talent it needs to enable the offense as a whole to open up to its full potential.
“Coach (Mark Whipple) does a good job of game-planning and putting in certain stuff for different teams. It’s always evolving and we’re always adding things and taking things out. I feel like with the talent we have, he’s able to go back to some of his stuff from his NFL days, from UMass and Miami… we have a lot of talent on the outside.”
Throughout his rise, Pickett has drawn NFL comparisons, including to one other quarterback who seems to have a lot in common with him and who also caught fire in one memorable season: current Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. While Pickett is focused on being his own quarterback and doesn’t exactly spend much time zeroing in on those types of comparisons, Burrow is a player he admires and does have similar traits to. If you’ve ever held a conversation with both Pickett and Burrow, you’ll see a similarity in mindset as well—a type of confidence that is neither loud nor quiet, the type of self-assuredness that seems to be consistent with all quarterbacks who perform at a high-level week in and week out.
Doing something right? We’d say so.
“I’ve watched Joe a couple of times and he’s a heck of a player,” Pickett said. “If people are comparing me to him, I guess I’m on the right track. I’ve got to keep doing what I’m doing. He’s great in the pocket, he’s athletic and he makes plays outside... there are some similarities there.”
Looking at the highlight tape and some of the clips from Burrow at LSU, there are moments where the two look practically identical.
Looking at Pickett now, he is by no means an undersized prospect at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. But when he was taking snaps at Ocean Township High School, height was something he battled—and in a way, that made him a better quarterback. He knows how to improvise and in the event that the next team he’s on has a 7-foot offensive lineman, it’s no problem.
Pickett says he’s watched a lot of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who does a lot of great things both in the air and on the ground, unhindered by his 5-foot-11, 215-pound stature.
“Russell Wilson… I was kind of an undersized guy in high school so I’ve always had that kind of mindset, obviously now I’m in that 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4 range,” Pickett said. “ Russell Wilson, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers—he’s one of the most talented guys to ever play the position. There are a lot of great examples in the NFL, but I think those three are some key guys.”
There’s a lot for Pickett on the horizon—that much goes without saying. He’s completed just under 69% of his passes for 2,236 yards with 23 touchdowns and just one interception (just one misfire in all 244 passes he’s thrown this season). But right now, his focus is on what’s directly ahead of him before we get to the events of the offseason and April.
“This is the kind of season I’ve always been looking for. For this team, especially. We have five weeks left to go finish strong,” Pickett said. “The goal is to win a championship, something that hasn’t been done here in the ACC. That’s been the goal since I got to Pitt and it’s something we’ve been chasing. That’s really the only thing I’ve been focused on and everything else will take care of itself.”