Panthers look to improve in passing game as ACC opener approaches |
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Jerry Dipaola
Pitt's Rafael Araujo-Lopes cuts back on Albany's Kareem Brown for a touchdown in the first half Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 at Heinz Field.

Maybe it’s too early to panic about the state of Pitt’s passing game.

The Panthers have played only two games, and one was against one of the nation’s best teams on a rainy night early in the season. It makes sense for fans to lower their expectations under those circumstances — especially when only one of the top 12 wide receivers and tight ends on Pitt’s 2018 depth chart caught a touchdown pass last season.

Actually, there were only 12 to catch in a season that was largely devoid of consistent quarterback play. The only returnee who scored touchdowns (two) is wide receiver Rafael Araujo-Lopes, the lone senior among the group.

Is it a matter of having some patience while sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett and his pass catchers figure out the learning curve?

Perhaps, but the time to grow up has arrived, with Pitt opening its ACC schedule Saturday against Georgia Tech at Heinz Field. The goal is a berth in the conference title game. This is where it starts.

Of the 50 pass catchers among ACC leaders this week, only two play for Pitt: sophomore Taysir Mack and Lopes, who have seven catches for 103 yards between them. Mack’s 26.5 receiving yards per game and Lopes’ 25 are 39th and 44th, respectively, in the conference.

Imagine if Pitt hadn’t been persistent in getting Mack, a transfer from Indiana, eligible this season?

Coach Pat Narduzzi said he expects his receivers to step up against Georgia Tech. He said they had a good week of practice but added, “Did I see anything this week that tells me they’re going to step up more than last week? No. If that’s any indication, we’ll find out.

“They have to make plays, and we have to get them the ball and we have to protect the quarterback.”

None of those three things happened against Penn State. Pickett was sacked four times, and he tried only 18 passes, completing nine, a low number considering Pitt never had a lead in the game.

Pickett likes to lift heavy loads, but there are limits to what a quarterback can do when he has nearly as many rushing attempts (20) as completed passes (25).

“As a competitor, I always feel (like taking on responsibility). I always try to do as much as I can to help the team win,” Pickett said. “Sometimes, that can hurt you in the long run.”

The ideal situation is for Pickett to sit comfortably in the pocket, read the defense and pick out an open receiver.

But that’s if everything around him is functioning perfectly. Otherwise, he won’t hesitate to use his legs if that’s the best way to move the football.

Remember: This is the same guy who ran for two touchdowns as a freshman last year to beat No. 2 Miami.

Now, as a sophomore empowered by the coaching staff with the starting job and the leadership that goes with it, Pickett has the keys to the car.

“I kind of do what I have to do,” he said. “My game is if stuff breaks down and I have to make a play, I’m going to make a play. If I can sit in there and sling it, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Narduzzi has not lost faith in Pickett.

“Kenny knows what he did and didn’t’ do (against Penn State),” he said. “Kenny will learn from his mistakes, I’m sure.

“I’ve talked about how consistent that guy is. There is nobody on our football team who is more consistent. He wasn’t consistent that night.”

But he appears to have responded with a good week of practice. That might not translate to game day, but it speaks to a level of diligence that could lead to success.

Asked how Pickett reacted this week, Lopes said, “Like a professional.”

“I stood back and watched him. I watched his demeanor. He didn’t’ get down. He was still confident with his chin up.”

Pickett can’t do it alone, but Lopes said the quest this week was improved preparation by everyone.

“Don’t waste any minutes,” he said. “When we’re here, just be locked in.”

That sounds like a good start to a major rebuilding project.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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