Pitt freshman quarterback Kenny Pickett impressed both Panthers fans and a nationwide audience while directing his team to a 24-14 upset victory over then-No. 2 Miami on Friday.
Panthers fans were obviously elated at the performance of the young quarterback, not just because Pitt won the game, because but because to the untrained eye, Pickett looked awfully good doing it.
But what about to the trained eye?
Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi was complimentary in his post-game comments, but didn’t say much about the way Pickett specifically looked as a player.
“Kenny’s a good football player,” Narduzzi said. “He’s young. The players have faith in him. He is someone that could work for us in the future, I think.”
Of course, Narduzzi’s aren’t the only trained eyes that have followed Pickett’s brief career. Former Pitt head coach Walt Harris remains a frequent observer of the program. Harris was noted as a quarterback specialist in his time as a coach and he liked what he saw from Pickett in his first career start.
“The thing that really excited me about him is his poise and his toughness,” Harris said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “I think its always great when your quarterback displays a tremendous amount of toughness. Football is a tough game and when your quarterback demonstrates it, I think it really motivates the rest of the team.”
Harris attended some of Pitt’s practices in the spring and said he saw a different player against Miami than he had a few months previous.
“He showed a lot of natural football playing ability,” Harris said. “I think with the lack of reps, starting off with Max Browne being new and getting most of the reps … as well as Ben DiNucci, it took him a while to get comfortable in the offense so that he could play up to his football playing ability. It just kind of all worked out in a crazy way.”
Harris said the fact that Pickett came out early, giving up the end of his senior year of high school, showed the Pitt coaching staff that he was serious about wanting to play right away. That decision, made almost a year ago, planted the seed for what happened on Friday.
“There’s very few true freshmen who can step in and do what he did,” Harris said. “It says a lot about Kenny Pickett, it says a lot about his high school coaches, it says a lot about how important football is to him, it says a lot about the confidence Shawn Watson has in him.”
When it comes to physical ability, Harris said the thing that most impresses him in Pickett’s ability to be a dual-threat player. Given the popularity of run-pass option plays, it’s something that the Panthers should be able to use to their advantage.
“It’s always nice to have quarterbacks that can run, prevent sacks and gain positive yards on scrambles and things like that,” Harris said. “That call at the end of the game on that 22-yard touchdown was a great call and a great illustration of Kenny Pickett’s talent.”
The other factor at play in Pickett’s success was leadership. Pitt had a crushing loss at Virginia Tech the week before in which they were essentially eliminated from bowl contention. Pickett was making his first start. There were plenty of reasons for things to go poorly against the Hurricanes.
“I think that speaks volumes about what’s going on in that locker room with the coaches with the players, the members of the team and the future,” Harris said. ” It looks like we’re going to be able to enjoy [Pickett] playing a couple more years of high level football.”