Pitt seeing progress with sophomore QB Kenny Pickett | TribLIVE.com
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Jerry Dipaola
Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett tries to break away from North Carolina defenders (from left) Tomon Fox, Cole Holcomb and Jalen Dalton on Saturday at Kenan Stadium on September 22, 2018 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Before Pitt’s season started, sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett could do no wrong.

Hopes were high after the upset of No. 2 Miami in Pickett’s first career start last year. With veteran running backs and an experienced defense to lean on, how could Pickett fail?

Alex Bookser, Pitt’s senior offensive tackle, said only one person was allowed to tell him to shut up, and it was Pickett. Clearly, Pickett owned the huddle.

Pickett, himself, showed off his brass when he vowed “5-7 won’t happen again. I guarantee that.”

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson praised his quarterback’s intellect and ability, comparing him to NFL first-round draft choice Teddy Bridgewater. “Same type of production, same type of ball security,” Watson said.

But that assessment was based largely on what Pickett had done in practice when sacks were not permitted and pass catchers roamed free, sometimes against backup defenders. Looking back with a clearer lens, perhaps fans were too eager to anoint a home-grown savior at quarterback after years of recruiting failures.

So where does Pickett stand after four games, two losses, four touchdown passes, three interceptions and seven sacks this season?

“We have to continue to remember where he’s at,” Watson said. “He’s still young (21), still developing. At times, he’s been outstanding.”

Watson said Pickett is growing toward the expectations thrust upon him.

“You have to find your way through those things and the reality of growing through the whole process of a different week, different stuff, working with his receivers.”

In other words, it’s not as easy as Pickett made it look in training camp.

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Pickett said Wednesday after the second day of drills for Saturday’s game at No. 13 Central Florida. “It’s something that started in 2017 (when he graduated early from high school) and is going to continue until my career ends here.

“You’ll never see it all. There are always things you can’t experience in practice until you get into a game situation.”

Compared against other ACC quarterbacks, Pickett is sixth in completion percentage (62.5), ninth in passing efficiency (120.8) and 11th in passing yards per game (145). It’s an improvement over what Ben DiNucci (55.7/117.8/109.1) did for Pitt in 10 games last season but slightly behind Max Browne (71.1/142.4/166.2), a fifth-year senior.

Watson sees progress in Pickett.

“Last week (in the loss to North Carolina), he did an unbelievable job of just identifying big-ball (down-the-field) opportunities and taking them,” he said. “Which is something we’ve been stressing.”

Overall, Pickett is averaging only 9.7 yards per completion (118th in the nation, 14th in the ACC), but wide receiver Taysir Mack’s 10 receptions for 224 yards suggest a long-ball relationship is developing. Watson said wide receivers Shocky Jacques-Louis and Maurice Ffrench also can get deep.

What most impresses Watson is Pickett’s knowledge of the game. When Pickett comes off the field after a series, Watson asks him what he’s seeing. “I don’t tell him first. I want him to articulate that to me to make sure he’s seeing the game,” he said. “He’s got great information. That’s always, for me, a major tale of the tape.”

Maybe the most difficult part of Pickett’s game to gauge is what he can do with his feet. He’s more than willing to run for a first down or a score and is the team’s second-leading rusher with 184 yards (if you take away 67 in sacks).

But he has been sacked seven times, often holding the ball too long.

“The guys (on the offensive line) understand if they give him time, he can hurt a defense,” Watson said. “It’s also the receivers winning and getting spaced up and getting to the right spots so Kenny can make the right decisions and get the ball off.”

Of course, pass routes often don’t follow the nice, straight lines Watson draws on the whiteboard, and the pocket isn’t always stable.

But Watson trusts Pickett to know the appropriate time to run and when to stay in the pocket, read the coverage and make a throw.

“I think we have to trust his instincts because he’s an instinctual runner,” he said.

Pickett likes tucking the ball safely under his arm and running.

“I’m just playing the way I’ve known how to play,” he said.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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