CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Before signing his first Name, Image and Likeness deal, Kenny Pickett had never enjoyed a meal at Spirits & Tales, a restaurant inside Pittsburgh’s Oaklander Hotel.
When Pickett showed up to shoot a commercial for the brasserie in the boutique establishment, he ordered a burger and fries. And that was “really good,” he said, and he suspects that the big boys playing in front of him on Saturdays will agree. Or perhaps they’ll order some of the French cuisine the eatery specializes in.
“I’ll probably go back to the burger and fries. Maybe I’ll mix it up throughout the season,” Pickett said. “I’m excited to see how the lineman like it.”
This fall marks Pickett’s fifth season under-center for Pat Narduzzi’s Pitt Panthers. The quarterback was able to return to school for an extra year due to an NCAA COVID-era ruling which made it so the 2020 season didn’t count toward a player’s eligibility clock.
Pickett could’ve gone to the NFL, where he may have been a mid-to-late round draft pick. Or he could’ve transferred to another school. Instead, he came back to the Steel City.
And this season, there’s more that Pickett has to worry about than simply improving his draft stock. He’s managing the uncharted waters of the NIL-era in college sports and, as a fifth-year quarterback, he’s expected to play better than he ever has before.
“I think a lot went into it,” Pickett said of his decision to return to Pitt. “The draft projections, talking with my coaches, Coach Narduzzi, Coach Whipple, seeing the team coming back. I think there’s an opportunity for this team to have a really special year. I’m right where I want to be. When I made the decision, I told myself I’d be all in on it. I’m all in on it and ready to go.”
Pickett enters this season as one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the country, having featured in 39 games for the Panthers, with 36 of those contests being starts. Of the projected starting quarterbacks in the ACC this season, only Miami’s D’Eriq King has played in more games than Pickett.
He’s also been named to the watchlist for the Maxwell Award and participated in the Manning Passing Academy earlier this summer. Still, the 6-foot-3 native of Oakhurst, New Jersey sees room for improvement.
While Pickett has thrown for 39 touchdowns and 7,984 yards over his time at Pitt, he’s also thrown 25 interceptions. And he’s never ranked better than eighth in a single season among ACC quarterbacks in passing efficiency rating.
“Pocket awareness is something I worked on,” Pickett said. “Pocket movement, operating from the pocket. I feel like I can do a pretty good job on the run and getting out of trouble when I need to. Obviously taking the next step inside the pocket, making throws, being more consistent.”
With a solid season in 2021, Pickett should leave Pitt as the owner of the program’s all-time records for total offense and passing yards. He trails Alex Van Pelt in each category, needing 3,283 yards through the air to take the Panthers’ passing crown.
And with one more rushing touchdown, Pickett will replace Rick Trocano as the Pitt quarterback with the most scores using his legs. Pickett ran into the end-zone eight times in nine games last season, matching his total output in rushing scores from his three previous seasons.
“I think that was just kind of how the games played out. We had a lot of guys get tackled on the one-yard line and I just had the opportunity to sneak it in,” Pickett said of his increase in rushing scores. “The coaches trust me to finish the drive off and get in the end-zone. I feel like I have a knack for that.”
According to Narduzzi, Pickett might get to run around inside the 20-yard line a little more this year. The seventh-year head coach said Wednesday, “We’re not going to kick field goals in the red zone anymore… When we get in the red zone, we’re going to score a lot more points this year.”
Pickett is entering his third season with Mark Whipple as his offensive coordinator. A year ago, the Panthers’ offense was potent and effective at times, like when it scored 40-plus points in back-to-back wins over Florida State and Virginia Tech, but it also looked lousy in spurts too, especially when facing talented football teams. Pitt lost games to ranked opponents in Miami, Notre Dame and Clemson, and scored less than 20 points in each defeat.
But this year – hopefully without COVID disrupting the team’s preparations – Pickett is confident about the Pitt offense taking the next step.
“I have a really good feel for how Coach Whipple is going to call (the) two-minute (offense). I understand the flow of the game, how it’s supposed to go. He handles the timeouts. I’m focused about moving the chains, getting positive plays,” Pickett said. “Offensively, really, we only lost (starting center) Jimmy Morrissey and a great receiver in DJ Turner. I think we have some young guys that are ready to step up.”
One of those prepared to rise to the challenge is sophomore wide receiver Jordan Addison. As a freshman, he caught 60 passes for 666 yards and four touchdowns, and also rushed nine times for 58 yards.
When he heard Pickett was returning for a fifth season, his eyes lit up.
“Our relationship has gotten closer and closer, so him coming back was a big deal. I was really excited. I wasn’t expecting it,” Addison said. “He’s a great leader. He knows how to rally everybody together and get us going. And he knows where to put the ball.”
Pickett knows how to keep the fellas that protect him happy too.
When Pickett was in high school at Ocean Township in New Jersey, he would take his offensive linemen out to dinner. It was a tradition he carried to Pitt, but college and high school students who are too busy with sports and academics to work can only make so much money. And feeding multiple 300-pound men can be expensive. So, the tradition was relegated to once a year.
But as part of his NIL deal with Spirits & Tales, Pickett will be able to treat his hogs – as he calls them – to one meal a week in exchange for promoting the restaurant.
“I’m really excited to have that dinner back,” Pickett said. “That was obviously very important for me to get done first.”
Pickett has already started working on his next NIL venture, trademarking a custom logo that features a K and an 8 in Pitt’s blue and gold.
“That was just something small that I wanted to do,” Pickett said of the logo. “Really just to have throughout the season, have some fun with it.”
While Pickett has peeked inside the doors that NIL opens for a high-profile quarterbacks, he wants one thing to be clear: “I’m focused on this season… I’m excited to have one more run with (Narduzzi) and give it everything I’ve got this season.”