Pitt fans were recently asked to name the top Panther related sports story in 2017. While there were a number of major topics to choose from. At the top of the list was the emergence of freshman quarterback Kenny Pickett. The voting wasn’t even close.
Pickett exploded onto the scene when he led the Panthers to an upset victory over the 2nd ranked Miami Hurricanes. His first start as a Panther was nothing short of amazing. Pickett accounted for 253 of Pitt’s 345 yards of total offense. He was 18-for-29 for 193 yards passing and rushed for 60 yards on 13 carries. Pickett’s late fourth quarter play, called “Sucker”, on fourth-and-6 turned the freshman quarterback into a celebrity with the Pitt fan base. It was a bootleg run to perfection. The play not only fooled the Hurricanes, it fooled his teammates.
Winners never stop working to improve their craft and Pickett has been diligently working to improve and prepare for next season. One of the individuals responsible for his improvement will be quarterback coach and mentor Tony Racioppi at TEST Football Academy. TEST is one of the top five schools in the nation for preparation of prospects entering the NFL draft. Racioppi himself has an impressive resume. He played quarterback for the Rowan University (located in Glassboro, NJ) football team. Racioppi finished his career as one of the top 25 passers in NCAA history and a two time All-American. He was a two-time runner up for DIII National Player of the Year and spent a brief amount of time playing for the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets.
Pitt QB Kenny Pickett working 5 Quick Throwing Bang 8/Glance Post route away from FS Rotation. Drop is smooth, momentum is stopped on Break Foot and Dovetail is taken at top to get aligned to backside Seam for throw. @TEST_Football @OT_Football @kennypickett10 #qb #Pitt pic.twitter.com/7sTYyudDtd
— Tony Racioppi (@Tonyrazz03) December 29, 2017
“What I do now is work with high school kids, obviously the college kids in the area. Then, I train all draft prospects, college kids training for the draft out of TEST,” said Racioppi. “TEST has been rated one of the top 5 rated places in the country to train for the last 10 years, so it’s an awesome staff there. I coach the quarterbacks. I’ll coach the receivers and tight ends, as well, but really the quarterbacks are my focus.”
“It’s a great blend between high school and college players. The college kids coming home for break want to get some work in and feel good about themselves. They want to fine tune some fundamentals. Then, when they go back to school, they’ll throw with their guys enough, then they’ll go into spring practice,” he said. “We’ve learned that over the years usually when the players come out of their season, they’re not fundamentally feeling good about themselves. It’s nice to get back to ground zero and just work on fundamentals and the basics. We work a lot on certain things within their offenses. Then, by the time they go out to school at the end of January or early February, they feel good about themselves and they try to maintain what we did obviously over the break and kind of go into spring practice and either win a job or hold on to a job.”
Racioppi works with a large number of talented quarterbacks. When asked specifically to elaborate on Kenny Pickett, he stated, “I think the sky’s the limit for the kid. He’s a very high character kid. He’s a kid that you want your quarterback to be. He’s a gym rat. He loves to lift. We can throw at…I can say, ‘Kenny, let’s get together 5:00 AM tomorrow somewhere’ and he’d be there. That’s the kind of kid he is.”
“I think from a fundamental standpoint, he can really do anything. He’s just so smooth in his route, he can make every throw. The kid is a passer to me. A lot of times I’ll get these D1 guys who come in, you know, they’re big strong kids and they all can throw the ball 1,000 miles an hour. Kenny understands how to drive the ball when he has to and layer the ball over a linebacker — like a second level throw. He can put a little air underneath it. He can really anticipate really well. He’s just…he’s so accurate with velocity, which is hard to find.”
Pitt QB Kenny Pickett working Midpoint Drill. Front foot 2inch step outside of target with no weight transfer setting pathway for hips, hip and shoulder slightly closing and not sliding forward while loading ball back to create accuracy on target with torque. Backside can Rotate. pic.twitter.com/pDYhZkQTbt
— Tony Racioppi (@Tonyrazz03) December 26, 2017
“A lot of guys either have one or the other. They either have that cannon for an arm, but they don’t have a feeling for how to lead a guy,” he said. “Then you have the other guy who can anticipate. He can lead a guy, but he really struggles if a defensive back is really tight on a guy. They can’t really drive the ball in there. He can do both.”
“With his work ethic and his talent combined, it’s rare thing to find a kid with super talent, unbelievable work ethic. Kenny has his head screwed on right as well. Kenny’s going to be that kid who can be a two- or three-year captain. He just has all the intangibles you’d want in a quarterback as well the physical ability.”
Racioppi elaborated quite a bit on Pickett’s passing ability, but he displayed a great ability to run with the ball. One play in the second half of the Miami game, he carried a pair of Hurricanes on his back while gaining an additional four to five rushing yards. When asked how Pickett’s athleticism compared to other quarterbacks he’s mentoring, Racioppi replied, “It’s great because I get to coach between the high-end D1 kids coming home, then obviously I have guys going to the draft. I’ve had nine guys sign either NFL or CFL contracts with me over the last four years. Kenny is right up there with those guys. I’ll be honest with you. He can flat-out do it all. I think the world of the kid. As a kid, as well as a player.”
“Kenny is a thick kid, but he’s still flexible. If that makes sense? Sometimes, you get guys that are big lifters. I was a big lifter. I loved it. But, the key is staying flexible and he’s still a very flexible, smooth athlete. It’s not like he’s got a lot of mass and he’s kind of like a stiff kid. He’s very fluid in everything he does.”
Racioppi will continue to work with Pickett in the future. He indicated that Pickett has something you simply can’t teach – moxie. Pickett is a “gamer”. Quarterbacks either have it or you don’t.
“Like I said before, he’s just an awesome kid. He’s got that ‘it’ factor,” he said. I watched the (Pitt-Miami) game on television you could see it in his eyes. Even after a bad play, he just had thought ‘ah, on to the next one’. Like, he just has such self-confidence. He has moxie without being arrogant.”
Harry Psaros can be found on Twitter at @PittGuru