MOBILE, Ala. — As one of the top quarterbacks in college football over his career, the odds were likely that Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett’s collegiate journey would end at the Senior Bowl.
The year of that journey was the thing that was in question.
Pickett seemed poised to leave Pitt for the NFL after the 2020 season, one that saw him sidelined by an ankle injury and the Panthers under-perform as a result.
Pickett was still invited to come to Mobile and showcase his talents, despite generally being thought of as a Day Three pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
But a conversation with Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy helped change is mind about taking that path.
“We invited Kenny to the game last year,” Nagy said. “We hopped on the phone last December and kind of talked through his decision-making process to come out and be in the Senior Bowl or go back to school. I told Kenny at the time, I never b.s. these players. I shoot them straight. I think a real problem with college athletes and football players is that everyone tells these guys what they want to hear and not what they need to hear. I was really straight up with Kenny. Just based off what we thought, and getting grades back from the NFL, he was going to be a Day Three player.”
That didn’t sit right with Pickett, who thought better of himself than a fourth-round or lower prospect.
“Jim gave me great advice,” Pickett said. “I sought advice from Jim, Coach [Mark] Whipple, some other people I really trust that would give valid information and everything I was hearing was Day Three. I just think of myself as a higher player than that and put myself in a better light. So I wanted to come back, really improve my game, and have no regrets in this process, give everything I have one last time, one last season, win a championship and then attack this process next.”
In returning to Pitt, Pickett took a chance. He could have suffered another injury, perhaps a more serious one. And there was no guarantee that him coming back would get Pitt over the hump of continual under-achievement, either.
Instead, Pickett stayed healthy, had the best season of his college career by far, and instead entered Mobile as perhaps the top quarterback prospect in the draft.
“To see him come back and have the success that he did, I think a lot of that really comes back to Kenny’s health this year,” Nagy said. “Just a different player on tape. To get to where he’s at right now, potentially the top quarterback in this class and a first round pick, it’s really cool. I’m really happy for him. Happy for his family. This is going to be a really fun three or four month journey for him. I’m happy it’s starting here in Mobile.”
What’s different about Pickett this time around? In addition to being health, the extra season — the third in Mark Whipple’s offense — really let him get comfortable with the mental aspect of his position that he hadn’t been able to show while being recruited by one offensive coordinator and playing for two more from 2016-19.
“I think the game really slowed down for me mentally,” Pickett said. “Being able to take what I’m watching on film, streamline that to seeing those pictures on the game field, knowing how to attack a defense, doing what we want to do with our game plan. That really took my game personally to the next level and it really boosted our offense.”
The extra season has made Pickett one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the 2022 NFL Draft class, and he thinks that will be an advantage in a quarterback class where he is surrounded by more question marks than sure things.
“I think just experience and the number of reps that I’ve had (as a) four year starter,” Pickett said when asked about his strengths. “You take a lot of reps in practice as a starter. I don’t like to give up a lot of reps. I make sure that I practice fully and feel great with all the game plans we have. The amount of football that I’ve seen, I think, is a huge positive going into this next chapter.”
That left him with little to prove this week in Mobile. There have been concerns about his hand size — something he hopes to address when measured at the combine. But the sheer amount of tape he’s put down at the college level means there hasn’t been a whole lot that Pickett had to prove in his week in front of the league’s decision-makers.
“I think everybody knows the kind of year I just had,” Pickett said. “It was a lot different than the previous three years. I just want to show that playing at a high level for 13 games isn’t a luck thing. You’ve got to be the same guy every single week and I want to be the same guy now down here in Mobile and show consistency.”
That was Tuesday. Saturday, Pickett was a perfect six for six in the Senior Bowl, throwing for 89 yards and a touchdown. It was necessarily flashy and his best pass — a 38-yarder to North Dakota’s Christian Watson — was thrown a good bit low, but it’s exactly the kind of performance we’ve come to expect from the player that has established himself as the lowest-risk option of the 2022 NFL Draft’s top quarterbacks.
“I just wanted to be consistent,” Pickett said. “I had a pretty good first quarter.”
Pickett said the throw to Watson wasn’t even the route that was called, but the American Team defense blew a coverage and Pickett and Watson adjusted on the fly.
“I saw him just kind of flash his hand real quick,” Pickett said. “I didn’t want to over-throw him. He was wide open. Just give him a chance to make a play and it worked out for us.”
The other thing he’s been hoping to show is his personality: the tough, competitor that Pickett is has been evident to Pitt fans, but is something he’s hoping to show the NFL.
“You don’t have a chance to talk to a lot of the NFL personnel in school,” Pickett said. “It’s really a unique experience, getting a chance to meet a lot of people. They can kind of see what kind of person I am and I can also get a feel for how this works at the next level, as well.”
As one of the top quarterbacks in the draft class, Pickett probably didn’t have to go to Mobile. Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, who was not eligible to attend, probably wasn’t hurt by not being there, as the class, which has been seen by many observers as a below-average one, generally failed to change that observation.
But by most accounts, the week was a positive one for Pickett, who won over teams with his personality, was able to show his consistency and mitigated many of the concerns team may have about making him the top quarterback in the draft.
“It was a really long week, but I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” Pickett said. “I talked to a lot of guys that have come here before. They just gave me the rundown of what I can expect. I think it even exceeded those expectations.”