PITTSBURGH — Ben DiNucci will be the starting quarterback on Saturday when Pitt hosts No. 20 North Carolina State.
Though head coach Pat Narduzzi said on Thursday that he expects to try to work in playing time for true freshman Kenny Pickett now that he’s exhausted his redshirt, DiNucci is going to get the ball first and he’s going to have the most say in whether Pitt wins or loses at Heinz Field against the Wolfpack.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Against Syracuse last week, DiNucci directed two complete drives. Both of them resulted in scoring for the Panthers, and they accounted for 11 of the team’s 24 points. Max Browne accounted for the other 13 points on nine drives.
Against Georgia Tech, DiNucci had 11 offensive drives and the offense scored 10 points. They didn’t score on any of Browne’s. Against Oklahoma State, Browne had four drives and Pitt didn’t score. The Panthers scored 14 points on DiNucci’s eight drives. Against Penn State, the only touchdown came on DiNucci’s watch, while Browne led the team to two field goals.
In Pitt’s four games against FBS schools, DiNucci has accounted for more than double the points that Browne did in less playing time.
Clearly, DiNucci is not as gifted of a passer as Browne was or even Pickett. But it doesn’t always take a rifle arm to move the offense down the field, and that’s all Pitt really needs to do. The Panthers offense last year was a juggernaut but Nate Peterman averaged just about 8 yards per completion over his Pitt career. DiNucci’s is 6.8 this year. That’s more than enough to move the ball down the field and keep drives going.
DiNucci is never going to be a first-round draft pick. He doesn’t have an elite arm. His windup isn’t pretty and he’s not always super accurate. That’s what shows up on a scouting report. That’s why he was lightly recruited out of Pine-Richland and that’s why many don’t believe he can be legitimate starter for the Panthers.
But that’s not the way it works, especially at the college level.
There are plenty of offenses, even record setting offenses with quarterbacks that never advance beyond the college and can’t throw the ball down field with any regularity. Pitt’s only nine-win or better seasons in the last two decades came with Bill Stull and Rod Rutherford at quarterback.
There’s also very little correlation between success and the way players were recruited.
“You’re defined on game day, when you step into the arena,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said on Thursday. “That’s why we don’t recruit stars. You try to look for character — what’s in the chest cavity. Guys definitely (get defined by their recruitment). That’s what everybody says they are and that’s not really who they are.”
DiNucci may have been lightly recruited. He may not be a future first-round pick. But if he’s to be defined by what he’s done on the field so far, it’s been pretty productive.
It’s also easy to lose sight of the fact that DiNucci is still inexperienced at this level, as well. He’s a redshirt sophomore that’s started exactly one game in his career.
“I know he’ll probably get mad when I call him that, but he’s still a baby. He’s still a young guy,” Narduzzi said. “Ben is still a young guy and we can’t lose track of that, for sure.”
DiNucci might not work out as Pitt’s starting quarterback. Pickett might turn into a star that can’t be held back. But it’s just as likely that DiNucci builds on his experience and continues to be a productive quarterback for Pitt.