“When you commit to Pitt, you see him on the walls. You see his name all over the walls. You see his picture… Now I’m starting to see my name on the wall.”
It’s been a lot of days, a lot of starts and a lot of throws for Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett since the first time he toured Pitt’s football facilities and saw Dan Marino’s name all over the building. And why wouldn’t it be there? What better way is there to ensnare potential recruits than to showcase one of the greatest passers of all time wearing the colors of the team they are thinking about committing to?
CLICK HERE FOR MORE PFF TOOLS:
Pickett, an Oakhurst, N.J., native, committed to Pittsburgh in June of 2016. Here we are five years later, and he’s still suiting up on Saturdays for the Panthers. Between then and now, Pickett has recorded 38 starts, 1,250 completions, 43 passing touchdowns and 8,541 passing yards — just 56 yards short of the exalted Marino, who sits second all-time on Pittsburgh’s career passing yards list.
Pitt Panthers QBs: Most passing yards in school history
|1||Alex Van Pelt||11,267|
But there was a moment last year when there was no certainty Pickett would reach this point and this opportunity to put his name next to the one that helped sway his decision back in 2016.
Back on Oct. 31 of last season, Pickett tucked the ball for a scramble up the middle. As he was tackled, one guy went low, one guy went high, and his ankle was caught in the middle. The result was a high-ankle sprain, but this was no ordinary ankle sprain. After gutting it out and playing through the rest of the game, Pickett learned he suffered a Grade 3 sprain on the inside of his ankle to go with a Grade 2 sprain on the outside.
Pickett is no doctor, but he knew that prognosis was not good.
“I started walking a little bit more, and I just knew it wasn’t good. So I had to dig down deep and finish that game out in the fourth quarter and the overtime,” Pickett said in a recent interview with PFF. “We ended up losing to Boston College, but the pain just kept getting worse and worse and worse as the game was going on. I got back to the locker room, and the thing was just so swollen. When I got into surgery, the doctor said it was worse than what they thought, which obviously wasn’t great to hear.”
It's daunting to hear a medical professional say something like that, especially for someone who knows that it will be their senior season. It can all make the mind wander. Did I play my last game? Will I be able to lead this team again? Is my college career gone, just like that?
For many, this might be where the mind goes. But not for Pickett.
“I think a lot of people were probably unsure if I was going to come back after that, but that really wasn’t even a thought. My first thought was, ‘I gotta get back as fast as possible.'
“The thought of never putting on that helmet again wasn’t really a thought, just because I know the kind of mentality that I have… I had the Florida State game circled like that was the goal. So every day, I was training, and I was rehabbing, and that was the goal just to get back to Florida State.
I would say when they told me that, that was kind of like, I took a step back, I was like ‘ahh, I may not be back as soon as I would hope to be,’ but our training staff did a great job, our doctors and our trainers that worked the rehab with me. I was living at the facility going through rehab like three or four times a day, so they did a great job. I worked hard and just got back as soon as possible.”
Pickett made it back to the practice field in 26 days — one day shorter than Tua Tagovailoa, who suffered the same kind of injury. But even when he was able to make it to the practice field, the work he was able to do was nothing close to back to normal.
“I had minimal practice because the game-day stuff and everything that you go through trying to play, I couldn’t do that during the week,” Pickett said. “I’m taking as many mental reps as I can. I’m an experienced guy to the point where I felt good with the game plan. I’ve taken enough reps with those guys where I can go out and go play. If you watch that one touchdown, I scrambled, and I think that’s the slowest I’ve ever run in my life. I was like skipping into the endzone. I was in so much pain.
QB Kenny Pickett returned from injury to lead his team to victory ????
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) November 8, 2020
“The thing that people don’t understand is the stress you put on it during the game and how much that sets you back to try and go play the next week. So, it’s like I was always fighting that with practice and everything like ‘ok, I made it to the game, I played. Alright now, I gotta work back up to try to get to that place again where I feel good enough to play.’ So that’s just kind of what you’re battling when you have these injuries.”
Pickett had to watch his team drop back-to-back games against Miami and Notre Dame before returning against Florida State. Playing through pain, Pickett helped lead his team to win three of their final four games that season, and as a senior, he found himself in an interesting spot.
Pickett has been a starter at Pitt since the tail end of his true freshman season. So, how are we talking about him in a college football capacity and not an NFL capacity? Well, it’s because Pickett is the latest example of a “super senior” created by the COVID-adjusted extra year of eligibility afforded to all college athletes due to the pandemic.
|2020||69.8||57th of 80|
|2019||75.0||50th of 116|
|2018||60.6||106th of 123|
But Pickett wasn’t always in on returning to Pitt, even with the knowledge of extra flexibility. Initially, he was ready to finalize his decision to take the next step. But after talking to some people well-connected to the league and learning the NFL thought of him as just a Day 3 pick, well, that didn’t sit well with the competitor in Pickett.
“I had conversations with so many people, and [offensive coordinator] Mark Whipple was really the first one that mentioned it because he knows the kind of competitor I am. He knows the kind of player I am, and I had the expectation for myself,” Pickett said.
“I reached out to some other people to try and get as much information as I could, and we all were seeing that I topped out at [round] four and pretty much the average was [round] five. You know, I don’t see myself in that area, and at the end of the day, that’s where I kinda said, ‘I have this extra year, I don’t wanna look back at my career and say what if I went back for one more year and played better and improved myself as a player, as a person?' Where would I be if I did that? I just wasn’t comfortable leaving and having that on my mind, so I was like, you know what, I wanna go back for one more, give it all I got, and we’ll see where the chips fall. Then I can just live with it and be happy with it.”
Given the way the chips are now falling, his decision seems as though it was the right one. Right now, Pickett has thrown for 557 passing yards through two games. That 278.5 yards per game average is a career high. His other numbers, such as the 7.6 yards per attempt, four touchdowns to zero interceptions, 69.9% completion percentage and 110.3 passer rating, are also all career highs, either on their own or averaged out for a full season.
|PFF passing grade||83.8||14th|
|Yards per attempt||7.6||46th|
|Adjusted completion percentage||78.9%||19th|
|Passer rating vs. the blitz||131.9||23rd|
|Passer rating from a clean pocket||115.2||38th|
|Passer rating under pressure||81.7||38th|
By Pickett’s own account, it’s been a journey that has been much more than physical.
“You look at how I started, obviously had the Miami game, go out there and you beat the No. 2 team ranked in the country as a true freshman, that’s gonna turn a lot of heads and get a lot of attention. And then you’re dealing with expectations going into your sophomore season, and I think a lot of people expected a lot, and I was still trying to learn. Dealing with criticism, dealing with being a full-time starter, the stress that it puts on your body mentally, physically, that whole thing. I think I grew the most from that season, and I took the most away from that season.
“I think success is a lousy teacher, so when I was going through all that adversity and everything, I learned a lot about myself, I learned a lot about the people around me — my teammates, my coaches. And I think I made a really big jump my sophomore to my junior year with coach Whipple coming in, implementing more of that passing system that we have. I think it was a run-heavy offense my junior year, and then coach Whipple came in, and we passed the ball really well the past two seasons. I was learning how to go through progressions, learning how to read defenses, (and) learning how to study film.”
All that time in the film room is certainly paying off. Pickett’s 83.5 PFF grade as a passer is a top-20 mark, 14th in the FBS to be exact, among quarterbacks who have dropped back to pass at least 50 times. If it holds, the early grade would be yet another career-high for Pickett, who earned a 60.6 grade as a sophomore, a 75.0 grade as a junior and a 69.8 grade in an injury-riddled senior season.
“My sophomore year, I would have all this information. But at the end of the day, it became too much to where I wasn’t playing fast,” Pickett said. “If I could advise anybody, you’re thinking I’ve got to learn college defenses. I’ve got to learn my system. I’ve got to do all this, all this, all this. But you’re not going to play fast that way. The only way you can be successful at this game is by going out there and reacting, playing fast and trusting what you see. The amount of film I watch is the same, but now, in terms of notes, in terms of small things, I’m not taking sentence notes, I’m putting a couple words down. It’s just helping me play faster, reacting to what I’m seeing in the game, and it’s just helping me play that extra step ahead this season instead of prior a couple seasons ago.”
Regardless of what happens this season, there won’t be a final decision for Pickett to make. This is it. This is the last ride. But it could be special for him in a lot of ways. Though he is still about 2,400 passing yards away from Alex Van Pelt as No. 1 on Pitt’s career passing yards leaderboard, he is just 56 yards shy of seeing his name above Marino’s. If all goes according to plan, he’ll achieve that early in their home game against Western Michigan this Saturday.
When I asked Pickett what hearing something like that means to him, he got a big smile on his face and said, “It’s unbelievable. He’s obviously a guy who really set the standard here for quarterback play.” The Pitt signal-caller then went on to say the quote at the top of this article about seeing his name on those walls and next to the pillar of everything the Pitt program stands on.
But achieving that feat is not why Pickett chose to return. Remember, he opted to come back for one more season because he didn’t want to have regrets. But what does having no regrets at the end of the road look like?
“I think a lot of people automatically think… they go to wins, losses, championships, numbers, stats and all that. I think you’re focusing on the wrong things if that’s just at the forefront of your mind,” Pickett said.
“In terms of just having no regrets, as soon as I made that decision. It’s ‘am I training my ass off every day? Am I competing every single day against myself and trying to become better and knowing that I didn’t come back just to have an average season?' I didn’t come back just to be average. I came back to give everything I got.”
For Pickett, his Pittsburgh career is an example of how giving everything you’ve got isn’t just the expectation; it’s the standard. That’s the mark he’s leaving as his name goes on the walls around the Pittsburgh program.