When Nick Patti made his first start for Pitt against Delaware in September of 2019, he targeted Maurice Ffrench and Taysir Mack heavily. Ffrench caught nine balls, Mack racked up 125 receiving yards and a touchdown and Pitt picked up the win. A lot has changed for both Patti and Pitt since then — notably Patti’s new flow.
“Definitely the longer hair,” Patti said on Pitt’s Monday Zoom press conference. “But that game was a while ago. I definitely had the chance to learn behind Kenny a lot. Learned myself a lot in practice. And I would say definitely a completely different player.”
With Pickett opting out of the Peach Bowl to pursue his NFL dream, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi named Patti as Pitt’s starter. With a shot at knocking off No. 10 Michigan State in Pitt’s first New Year’s Six Bowl game since the 2005 Fiesta Bowl and chance to guide Pitt to its first 12 win season since 1976, Patti has a lot at stake when he finds the field.
But he’s earned the respect of his coaches and teammates through his hard work not just since being named the starter but through his entire time at Pitt.
“I think, number one, Nick is a worker,” Tim Salem, Pitt’s tight ends coach said. “Nick comes to practice every day prepared. Even though he’s not getting many game reps in front of the crowd and in front of the TV audience, he’s at practice. He understands reads. He understands the offense. He’s able to communicate.”
Salem was named the interim offensive coordinator for the Peach Bowl last week, rising from his post as the tight ends coach to the interim play-caller since former offensive coordinator Mark Whipple exited for the same position at Nebraska. It’s a fitting promotion for both Salem and Patti, as Salem served as Patti’s primary recruiter out of high school.
While Narduzzi said last week that he doesn’t want Patti to worry about the arrival of USC transfer Kedon Slovis to compete for the starting spot next fall, Patti does look at his opportunity in the Peach Bowl as an audition of sorts to show exactly what he’s capable of in Pitt’s offense. With his last start coming, ‘forever ago,’ he’s ready to get back out and play.
With Jordan Addison saying Monday that he kind of expected — and respects — Pickett’s decision to opt-out, Patti has had a chance to strengthen the rapport between himself and his offensive teammates — Addison in particular. With Patti under center at practice this week, Pitt’s offense hasn’t missed a beat.
“It’s definitely been great,” Israel Abanikanda said. “He’s definitely a great team player. He’s definitely a great leader. And it feels like the same, just like as Kenny’s in the huddle.”
While Patti has taken some first-team reps at times this season and had his number called at times throughout the course of the regular season, it is still a major change to be The Guy for Pitt now.
“Definitely different,” Patti said. “And I think that that’s the benefit of the bowl game is we had a week or week and a half off for finals week. And the guys, like Jordan, Jared (Wayne), Shocky (Jacques-Louis), that I haven’t really thrown to that much, we had a chance to throw to every day. And that was a big benefit because going from the twos to the ones, it’s definitely a speed change and you’ve got to — they’re real easy to throw to, but if you don’t throw to them at all, they’re not so easy to throw to. That was, this past week and a half getting chemistry with them. I think we went two or three days without throwing an incompletion, throwing almost 150 balls. I’m excited about it. I know everyone’s excited about it. We just can’t wait until Thursday.”
Patti worked relentlessly with Addison over the past month, spending a great deal of time strengthening his bond with his Biletnikoff-winning target, and the game plan likely won’t be a surprise for many people. Opposing defenses have known all season that Addison will be heavily targeted, but that hasn’t mattered much. With Patti under center, Addison said it will almost be too easy catching his passes.
“I would say he knows where to put the ball on any route and he has great touch,” Addison said. “So I would say it’s a little easy to catch his passes. He’s been doing a pretty good job. Everybody, when he talks, everybody stays quiet and listens. So he has that dominance in the room. And I think we’re going to be fine.”
With offensive leaders like Addison, Abanikanda, Lucas Krull and Marcus Minor — and the entire offensive line really — offering their support for Patti, raving about his preparation and the trust he’s instilled upon the offense, Patti credited Pitt’s system in allowing such a smooth transition from Pickett to himself.
“I think it’s just a tribute to the way our team is,” Patti said. “I think that’s why we had so much success, was just because we have the family environment. When someone has to step up, everyone’s excited for them because they see the work that they do behind the scenes and in practice every day.”
While Pitt’s offense won’t look much different than it did with Pickett under center for the Peach Bowl, the process will be a little different. Salem will continue to coach from the box, with quality control assistant Matt Schell serving as the quarterbacks coach and go-between on the sideline. Pickett himself will also be in the box with a headset on, able to offer his input to those in the box with him.
“So it will be mainly business as usual,” Patti said. “But we’ll have coach Salem up top being able to relay everything down and have the bird’s-eye view we’ve had all year.”
It’ll be impossible for Patti to replace Pickett and his impact and production in Pitt’s offense, but Salem is confident in Patti’s ability to run the offense. And even if Patti won’t be able to make an impact with his legs the way Pickett did, he’ll be counted upon to run the offense the same.
“Nick is a headsy football player,” Salem said. “By and large, he’s not as fast as Kenny, but he still does have a north/south mentality. If he’s got to put his shoulder down and run he has scored touchdowns in the past running the ball. So it’s not unfamiliar to him. But when the pass play is called he’ll execute a pass play. And if it comes he has to scramble and move forward we trust him making those decisions.”
In getting to go up against a Michigan State defense that hemorrhages passing yards this season, ranking dead-last in the FBS in passing yards allowed per game, Patti has both the opportunity to prove himself and take advantage of a favorable matchup.
Regardless of the outcome, however, Salem said Patti has earned his shot to start — and now it’s time to go out and show it.
“His workmanship has been there all year long,” Salem said. “So now it’s his time to go and show what he can do and shine. And I think the players have seen what he is, who he is, and they’re just glad that he’ll be in the huddle with them.”