Tim Salem listened. A few connections pointed him in the direction of a young, under-the-radar high school quarterback in Oakhurst, N.J., and he listened.
A few of the local New Jersey high school coaches that Salem had built rapport with had coached the kid. He had even heard from the Ocean Township High quarterbacks coach himself. Kenny Pickett was someone you wanted to see. It became too much to tune out. Salem decided to go see who — or what — exactly Pickett was.
It’s a six-hour, 370-mile drive from Pitt’s South Side facility to Ocean Township High in Oakhurst, N.J., just three miles from the Jersey beaches, but Salem made the trek himself. And when he arrived at Ocean Township High, he had an immediate impression: this kid is short.
Pickett was short, sure, but he was also young. He was young, and he displayed the mannerisms and confidence in the quarterback position that Salem couldn’t help but admire. He didn’t extend an offer to Pickett then, but he didn’t forget the short, plucky quarterback from Oakhurst either.
A lot changed between Salem’s first and second meetings with Pickett. Height, notably.
When Salem first met Pickett, he stood right around 5-foot-9. It was what Salem noticed first, but it was also a point of contention in the Pickett household. Pickett’s father stands at 6-foot-1. His grandfather on his mother’s side stands 6-foot-3, and his grandfather’s brother at 6-foot-3. The genes were there. It just took until the summer between his sophomore and junior years for Pickett to hit that six-inch growth spurt.
But it wasn’t just Pickett growing into his frame that drew attention. He excelled in the camp scene, his performances as a junior drawing not only Salem’s attention but the attention of coaching staffs from across the country, and Salem had to eventually make his way back to Ocean Township High.
Salem made the trek back to Ocean Township the spring before Pickett’s senior season, and when he saw Pickett again, he was looking up at a much, much taller quarterback this time around. “What the heck happened?” Salem thought to himself at the time, seeing a new side of the bigger, stronger Pickett.
“Watching him play baseball, watching him throw passes, he — back then — had the ‘It’ factor,” Salem said Tuesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “He had the quarterback mentality, quarterback demeanor, the anticipation, the moxie, all those words you want to hear. He had it.
Salem immediately returned to Pitt and expressly informed Matt Canada, then-Pitt offensive coordinator, current Steelers offensive coordinator, that there was a kid — a quarterback — he needed to see. In person. He needed to go out to Ocean Township High himself and watch Pickett play.
So, Canada did. He traveled out to watch Pickett, saw exactly what Salem was preaching and officially offered Pickett. The only problem was that, at that point in time, Pickett was still committed to Temple. It didn’t take long for that commitment to flip.
It took less than a month for Pickett to go from a Temple commit with a Pitt offer to a Pitt commit with two unofficial visits under his belt. And about eight months later, Pickett signed his NLI and enrolled early at Pitt.
Pickett arrived early as a kid from the Jersey Shore, not that Jersey Shore, that wasn’t heavily recruited and wasn’t expected to make an impact right away. It was expected by many that Pickett wouldn’t see the football field as a freshman and simply take his redshirt before making an attempt to see the field as a second-year player.
Boston College, Iowa, North Carolina and Pitt were the only Power Five programs to offer Pickett, and in choosing Pitt, trusting in Canada and Salem, he rewarded Pitt’s faith with the best stretch of quarterbacking the program has ever seen — it’s not surprising to anyone that Pickett is where he is now.
“I think since I was kinda able to see him grow overnight technically, and a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, who’s this guy, he’s nothing.’ To go recruit him and get him over here — and of course, Pitt was great for him and his family to see our academics, the program, what we had at the time, and we were able to land him,” Salem said. “From the day he showed up here, he’s been a player.”
Pickett wasn’t a blue-chip recruit, and he wasn’t just a late addition to the recruiting class either. He was just expected to redshirt as a freshman, serve his time as a young player in the system and wait his turn as older, more experienced quarterbacks played ahead of him. Pickett had other ideas.
Even while Pickett worked with Pitt’s scout team, the unit known as the “Rocks” in practice, he welcomed the opportunity to face off against Pitt’s starting defense — a defensive front that featured Rashad Weaver, Patrick Jones and Oluwaseun Idowu and secondary that featured Dane Jackson, Jordan Whitehead, Avonte Maddox and Damar Hamlin. When he got hit, he bounced back up with a smile on his face. And he certainly got hit a lot.
“We aren’t afraid to hit the quarterback on the scout team because we’re training our guys how to bend and turn corners and reach for arms, and Kenny almost loved it,” Charlie Partridge, Pitt’s defensive line coach, said Tuesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “It’s like he thrived on the contact.
“You guys saw the clip of him getting hit on Sunday, and he got up laughing, talking at the guy, and that actually brought me back to some of those moments. Our guys would get after him because there’s a mismatch on the Rocks o-line compared to the starting d-line, so we’d get after Kenny, and he’d absolutely love it every time. And you guys are seeing it now at the highest level.”
Pickett made his NFL debut last Sunday against the New York Jets, entering the game cold in the second half after an extended week of practice in which he didn’t receive any first-team practice snaps. It wasn’t an ideal situation to enter into, but for Pickett, it was a dream come true. It was a debut perfect for a short, scrappy kid who once had far-off dreams of being an NFL quarterback.
Pickett’s first pass attempt was intercepted, but it was as if the interception, which bounced off the hands of his intended receiver, had been a touchdown toss. There wasn’t an ounce of hesitation or anxiety as he scored his first NFL touchdown on the next drive. Or as he led a second scoring drive directly after — despite facing down a third and long in the red zone.
On 3rd-and-8 from the Jets’ 20 early in the fourth quarter, Pickett took a Mason Cole snap in the shotgun, stood tall in the pocket as 6-foot-3, 303-pound Quinnen Williams bore down upon him and delivered a 10-yard strike to Pat Friermith to move the chains and get inside the 5-yard line. And after eating Williams’ hit, knocked clean off his feet upon impact, Pickett bounced back up and smiled in Williams’ and his teammate Bryce Huff’s face.
Pickett didn’t just smile either. He barked back with that smile shining through the grilles of his facemask.
This whole sequence from #Steelers QB Kenny Pickett gives me life. Takes the massive shot and makes a completion over the middle. What I love most though is the swagger he has to smile in the face of Quinnen Williams after the shot, talk smack, play with that edge. "It" factor! pic.twitter.com/TmCwMyOmpq
— Josh Carney (@ByJoshCarney) October 5, 2022
“That’s Kenny right there,” Jared Wayne, Pitt’s star wide receiver, said Wednesday, “that’s Kenny through and through.” That grit, the smile-in-the-face-of-adversity attitude, is what fueled Pitt in 2021. There’s a certain level of swagger required to play quarterback, an “It” factor that isn’t taught. It can’t really be described, but when it’s not there it’s certainly noticeable.
Pickett wasn’t listed on the two-deep to start his freshman campaign, he served as the scout team quarterback for most of the season, and he was supposed to use the season as a year to grow into a college quarterback. There was always next year, right? With Ben DiNucci, Thomas MacVittie and USC transfer Max Browne ahead of Pickett on the depth chart, there wasn’t an easy path to playing time. Yet it arrived nonetheless.
One pass attempt against Syracuse in October, 13 pass attempts against North Carolina State the next week and the first serious taste of college football in place of DiNucci — replacing Pitt’s season-long starter in the first quarter — a month later against Virginia Tech. His first career start came against No. 2 Miami at what-was-then Heinz Field in the final game of the regular season in 2017.
Pickett, a true freshman with 37 career pass attempts and a now-burned redshirt under his belt, came out and threw for 193 yards and a touchdown and ran for 60 yards and two touchdowns to knock off undefeated Miami 24-14, keeping the ‘Canes out of the College Football Playoff picture and cementing himself as a quarterback who might just be able to lead Pitt in the future. That certainly became the case.
“I’m putting money on Kenny,” Salem said. “You go back to his freshman year when he got his first true start, he came in and played the Virginia Tech game prior to Miami, I guess playing the Jets the other day, and now to come in and your first start — Kenny went up against the undefeated, No. 2 ranked Miami Hurricanes. Now he’s going against the Super Bowl favorites. Kenny’s done that. Kenny’s experienced that. That’s who Kenny is.”
Buffalo is 3-1, with an MVP favorite in Josh Allen under center and a top-ranked secondary on the other side of the football — that features a few former Pitt stars in Jackson and Hamlin. Pitt is a 14-point underdog, but Gavin Bartholomew is looking forward to a shocker in Buffalo Sunday afternoon.
“I hope (Pickett) takes them down up in Buffalo,” Bartholomew said Wednesday. “I thought he did a good job last week, but I’m excited for him to go out there and ball out.”
Bartholomew, a sophomore tight end at Pitt, only spent one season with Pickett. He arrived at Pitt as a fellow early enrollee himself, a low three-star recruit who flipped from Buffalo right before National Signing Day, and when he arrived on campus, he immediately noticed recognized that he didn’t just have a great quarterback throwing him the ball, he had a quarterback who actually recognized him.
“Just a great dude,” Bartholomew said. “Before we even went out on the field, and I actually played with him, he was just a great leader. When I first got here, he knew my name already. And I’m like, ‘Damn, you know my name?’”
Kenny Pickett knew Bartholomew’s name. He’s the kind of guy to use his NIL deals to buy his entire offensive line weekly meals, the kind of guy to spend weekends at local Boys & Girls Clubs of America and dedicate himself as a Pittsburgh legend on and off the football field. And now that he’s the starting quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers, it’s almost as if he was built for the opportunity.
“You can trust Kenny’s preparation because Kenny just knows what to do, how to do, when to do,” Salem said. “… Kenny’s a player, he’s proved that since the day I saw him in Ocean Township, New Jersey.”
And while Salem won’t be able to watch as the Steelers take on the Bills Sunday at 1 p.m., his metaphorical terrible towel will be waving as Pickett leads the offense out on the field in his first start since the ACC championship game last December.