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PITTSBURGH – Every Tuesday night, Kenny Pickett and six of his teammates convene at the same table in the back of the Spirits & Tales restaurant near the University of Pittsburgh campus. The meals are known as Hog Dinners, but they are served on a white tablecloth.
The hungry group typically features six of Pickett’s offensive linemen (the occasional tight end and fullback moonlight as guests). Combined, the seven diners weigh nearly 2,000 pounds. It only seems like they eat their weight, as the servers get a workout bringing out dishes – baked chicken one week, duck another and even escargot, a surprise hit.
The only weekly request is for the whipped ricotta with bread, as Pickett’s protectors are devotional to it. Fittingly, all the dinners are family style and they're a huge perk of the new name, image and likeness legislation that Pickett gets to share each week with his teammates.
In Kenny Pickett’s last charge as Pitt’s quarterback, everyone at the table has been satisfied. The coaches have delighted in his return amid the Panthers' 8-2 season, NFL scouts are drooling over his stock improving by at least four rounds and his teammates are streaking toward the school’s first ACC title. “It's been great,” he said recently in the Pitt football facility, “I think, for everybody.”
Along the way, Pickett’s redshirt senior year has evolved into a throwback ideal and a future recruiting pitch. Pickett, 23, has emerged as a Heisman Trophy candidate with 32 touchdown passes, a strong contender to be the top quarterback picked in the NFL draft and a model for betting on yourself to stay in school amid the new era of college football.
There has been plenty of whipped ricotta to go around, as Pickett became the school’s career leader in passing yards (11,501) and his 71 career touchdowns are eight shy of Dan Marino’s school record. He has also used new rules around NIL to raise money and awareness for the Boys & Girls Club and centered his deals on making sure his teammates benefit from the free golf, meals and spoils that come his way.
As Pitt looms as the surprise ACC title favorite, Pickett is cementing himself as the same type of program-defining player as former stars like Aaron Donald, Larry Fitzgerald and Darrelle Revis. “He’s become a folk hero in Pittsburgh right now,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi told Yahoo Sports.
With Pickett the toast of the town in 2021, it’s reasonable to say his senior season could resonate as an archetype – the Pickett Paradigm? – for future college players.
“I think you’re going to see a few other guys who say, ‘I’m going to go the Kenny Pickett route,’” said Tim Younger, Pickett’s NIL representative.
'Beauty in the struggle'
A baby-faced Kenny Pickett smiles sheepishly on a recruiting visit to Pitt in June of 2016. He’s wearing his hat backward and donning the type of awkward fitting game jersey that recruits model for Instagram on official visits. He poses next to a display of Dan Marino in the school’s football facility, including a trophy from his 1982 Sugar Bowl MVP.
A half-decade later, Pickett has transformed from a wide-eyed recruit to inching his name alongside Marino in the Pittsburgh record book. His hair now flows out of his helmet, and his poise comes through the collective scars gathered going 29-17 as a starter that’s rare in the era of three-and-done expectations and the transfer portal.
“That's the kind of guy you're chasing when you commit to a place like this,” Pickett said of Marino in a recent interview in Pitt’s football facility. “I feel like everywhere you go, there's greats that have been there before you and you want to accomplish all those things.”
As much as things change in college football, there’s a reason some stay the same. Pickett, who hails from Oakhurst, New Jersey, never received a scholarship offer from Kyle Flood or Chris Ash’s Rutgers staff. His father, Ken, said his son would have committed to stay local. (The quarterback Rutgers took over him, Johnathan Lewis, is now a backup at South Dakota.)
The quarterback that Pickett eventually beat out at Pitt and forced to transfer, Ben DiNucci, has cameoed as an NFL starter. Pickett wasn’t one of the Rivals.com Top 25 dual-threat quarterbacks in the 2017 class, well behind the likes of everyone from Tua Tagovailoa to Sam Ehlinger to Tate Martell.
Some paths are rockets. Others are incremental. Pickett burst onto the scene in his lone start as a freshman in 2017, rushing for two touchdowns and throwing another in the Panthers’ upset over then-No. 2 Miami. (It had to be a long time ago if Miami was ranked that high.)
That earned him a congratulatory text from Marino and the accompanying goosebumps. But it hasn’t been all giddy celebrations. Pickett led the Panthers to the 2018 ACC Coastal title, but completed just 58 percent of his passes and endured a 51-6 loss to Penn State and a 45-14 loss to UCF as well as three straight defeats to close the season.
Upon reflection, Pickett knows there’s “beauty in the struggle” and those moments molded him to be the quarterback who eventually entered the same conversation with Marino.
“Didn't play great, dealt with criticism, you can rely on your family and friends as support and kinda push through those moments,” Pickett said. “But I think those kind of moments molded me into the kind of person and player I am.”
Because of that development, there's a chance that future Pitt recruits will be snapping photos in front of a Kenny Pickett display.
The right offensive coordinator prevented early exit for NFL draft
With his shock of white hair, colorful language and a resume fit for a documentary, Mark Whipple cuts the caricature of a football lifer. He won a Super Bowl as Ben Roethlisberger’s first Steelers quarterbacks coach, won a national title as head coach at then-Division I-AA UMass and could start a Northeast college consulting company for all of the places he has hopscotched in the region – Brown, St. Lawrence, Union, New Haven, New Hampshire and two separate hitches at UMass.
Whipple, 64, doesn’t fit the archetype of the young-and-handsome McVay-tion trend that has rippled through the NFL and college football. But Whip, as everyone calls him, knows his way around the playbook and the passing game.
After Pitt reached the ACC title game in 2018, the first for the school, it also slumped on offense at the end of the season. Pitt failed to score more than 13 points in its final three games, and Narduzzi called Ken Pickett, Kenny’s dad, and promised to fix the situation.
“I’m going to take care of Kenny and get one of the best offensive guys in the game and develop your son into what we know he can be,” Ken Pickett recalled Narduzzi telling him.
Pitt finished No. 120 in passing offense in 2018 under then-coordinator Shawn Watson, and the Panthers’ transformation to the country’s No. 5 passing offense in 2021 coincides with the hire of Whipple, Narduzzi’s willingness to evolve and Pickett’s development.
When Whipple arrived in 2019, he looked around and saw deficiency in the skill position areas around Pickett. And in his typically blunt fashion, it made sense to Whipple why receivers avoided Pitt: “You’re not going to get any receivers if you’re not throwing the ball.”
Narduzzi brought in Whipple to install a pro-style offense and keep his promise to Ken Pickett about developing his son. “He’s not just putting up numbers in this RG3 [old Baylor-style] gimmick offense,” Narduzzi said. “This is a pro-style offense where he’s going through progressions and reading, one, two to three to four and five. He can do that. He’s done that.”
Pickett threw for 1,129 more yards in two less games under Whipple in 2019. He put together a strong enough 2020 season – 13 touchdowns, nine interceptions – that he went into Narduzzi’s office before the season-ending game at Georgia Tech and told him that he was going to declare for the NFL draft.
Pickett had an invitation to the Senior Bowl and 36 career starts. But his draft status was ambiguous, as Narduzzi points out that any projection past the third round brings a risk of being undrafted. Pickett called Peyton Manning and Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy for advice. Whipple worked the phone for two days and got projections around the fifth or sixth round.
Whipple’s feedback appealed to Pickett’s sensibilities and his competitiveness. Anyone drafted that late is vulnerable to get cut, which made it a risky career move. Also, Whipple told Pickett he was better than that, and a career as a late Day 3 draft pick meant he’d get limited practice reps. “Whip knows Kenny the best,” Ken Pickett said. “He told Kenny if he’s not getting reps in camp, he’s not going to be happy.”
A few days after Pickett told Narduzzi he’d be leaving for the NFL, he called him and told him he was coming back. And that’s when things really began to take off. “I wouldn’t have come back if Coach Whipple didn’t come back,” Kenny Pickett said. “I knew what we were building, and I knew we were very close.”
A special season
To illustrate how far Kenny Pickett has come, Whipple picks up the remote in the Pitt offensive staff room and calls up a play on the oversized projector from Pitt’s recent game with Miami. It’s third-and-6, and the Panthers are expecting the Hurricanes to play man.
Pickett deftly executes a five-step drop and finds one of his new weapons, freshman tight end Gavin Bartholomew, with a step on a safety in the flat. The ball placement is so perfect on the throw that Whipple rewinds it twice just to admire it. “It's the Bill Walsh [saying], ‘We want the ball one foot in front of the numbers,’” Whipple said, pausing for effect at the catch point. “Where's that ball? One foot in front of the numbers.”
It’s placed so perfectly that Bartholomew hauls in a throw designed to get a first down and is able to catch it in stride, turn upfield and register a 37-yard chunk play. “All because of the ball placement,” Whipple said, a hint of pride in his voice.
Pickett ranks in the top 5 nationally in touchdown passes (32), passing yards (3,517) and points responsible for (216). Narduzzi is a defensive coach by trade, but he has embraced the aggressive passing game and sums up Pitt and Pickett’s star-kissed season this way: “Timing is everything with a quarterback.”
Whipple stressed to Pickett in his breakdown about coming back that the schedule and Pitt personnel would be much improved. Sophomore receiver Jordan Addison is second in the ACC in receiving yards (1,070) and will be the first Pitt wide receiver drafted since Tyler Boyd in 2015. And Pitt has bookend promising tight ends, Lucas Krull and Bartholomew, one year after that position was essentially vacant because of injury.
Pitt dropped 41 passes in 2020 and so many Panthers receivers got caught at the 1-yard line or fell untouched upon catching the ball that Narduzzi had cut up tapes made and invented drills this spring to help guys stay upright. Pickett’s accuracy has been sublime, as he has completed 67.5 percent of his passes and has just four interceptions.
“I truly believe the difference between this year and last is COVID,” Narduzzi said. “We just didn't have the timing, he had no spring ball, no summer 7-on-7, which those guys are out there every single day. So he didn't have the development, so he's a year behind because we missed a year.”
For Pitt and Kenny Pickett in 2021, everything has timed up. The Panthers beat Clemson for the first time since 2016, ran up 41 points on Tennessee in Neyland Stadium and can clinch the ACC Coastal by beating Virginia on Saturday. The drops have been cut nearly in half to 23 total this season, and Pitt’s offensive system and skill have been so significantly upgraded that it looms as a potential destination for a talented transfer quarterback in 2022.
Pitt’s ACC title game foil is likely to be Wake Forest, as the Deacons are undefeated in ACC play and need just one victory to clinch a spot in the conference title game. Pickett’s primary goal for returning is within reach.
“That’s the goal, and that would mean the world to me to come back and finish the job,” Pickett said. “Not get there, but finish it and get the win, get a championship win.”
Pickett also knows that leading the Panthers to an 8-2 record has played a big role in improving his draft stock, including beating UNC quarterback Sam Howell head-to-head in overtime in a driving rainstorm last week.
The other piece of timing that’s lined up for Pickett is that his emergence has coincided with a generationally weak NFL quarterback crop. In most years, Pickett wouldn’t be favored to go in the first round, nor would he be the leader in the QB1 conversation. But this isn’t most years. “He’s not a first-round talent,” said a veteran scout, “but he’ll likely be a first-round pick.”
Pickett’s arm strength isn’t elite, and there are some pocket awareness issues that will be combed over once the NFL dials in. But with Mike White, Taylor Heinicke and Trevor Siemian all starting in the NFL, there’s a perpetual shortage at the position that this draft will struggle to fill. “He'll play a long time in the NFL,” Whipple said, his voice confident. “He's risen this program to another level.”
Pickett’s return to school will also loom over future draft discussions of quarterbacks who have room to improve their stock. Pickett’s legacy could be that he timed things perfectly – post-COVID, early to NIL and, of course, enjoying the whipped ricotta spoils of success with his teammates. Pickett and Pitt’s 2021 season is being enjoyed family-style, with the best courses still to be served.