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Quarterback Kenny Pickett is undeniable leader of Pitt offense

Jerry DiPaola
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Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett passes as Miami defensive lineman Tito Odenigbo applies pressure during the second half Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018, in Miami Gardens, Fla.

The first time Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett made a lasting impression on his teammates, safety Dennis Briggs was just happy to walk away with no broken bones.

It was near the end of a Thursday practice last season when Pickett looked like just any another scout team quarterback, trying to mimic that week’s opponent.

Briggs, who has been one of the locker room’s most respected voices during his five years on campus, was rushing the passer on a blitz.

“Nobody really knew what kind of quarterback he was yet. I didn’t either,” Briggs said. “Called a blitz. I’m running towards, not his upfield shoulder, but his downfield shoulder. Should have been running for his upfield shoulder.

“He spun right out of the pocket, almost broke my ankles coming out of the pocket. I’m like, ‘Who is this dude?’ I’m thinking it’s going to be an easy sack because I haven’t seen this guy play yet. I’m probably not running full speed.

“That shows me right there that we have a guy on the depth chart who is dangerous.”

Not long after that, Pickett climbed to the top of the depth chart, seizing control of the huddle and stepping behind center for each of the past 13 games, including eight Pitt victories.

“His development has been fun to watch,” Briggs said.

Pickett enrolled early at Pitt in 2017, his maturity and grades allowing him to graduate from Ocean Township (N.J.) High School halfway through his senior year and join his new teammates in January.

An injury to starter Max Browne and a 3-6 stretch during the season made it inevitable that coach Pat Narduzzi needed to call on Pickett. He relieved starter Ben DiNucci during the penultimate game of the season, nearly rallying his older teammates to a victory at Virginia Tech.

A week later, he led Pitt to an upset of No. 2 and previously undefeated Miami, and he’s never loosened his grip on the starting job.

“He’s always been a locker-room leader,” Briggs said. “That’s something that comes naturally to him. It’s something that translates out on the field. The offensive huddle is an intimate setting. I can tell in guys’ eyes they trust what he says when they’re out there on the field. That’s a great thing for our program to really trust a guy that’s out there going to battle every single day.”

Two years ago, Pickett was sitting in his living room with his parents, thinking about enrolling at Pitt, taking a break from his training while watching the team upset previously undefeated and eventual national champion Clemson.

Now, Pickett is getting ready to lead Pitt against No. 2 Clemson on Friday in the ACC championship game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.

“When I first came here, I wanted to get this team back into championships, lead this team back into a championship like they were in the old days,” he said. “We had them in 2016. I wasn’t a part of it. I just got to watch it and see the emotion those guys played with. Now it’s in the ACC championship game, means that much more.”

While leading Pitt to the ACC Coastal title, Pickett is more a game manager than a quarterback forced to lead his team through the air.

He’s thrown 30 or more passes in only two games, but he’s accounted for 2,045 yards of total offense. After throwing five interceptions in the first 5 ½ games, he’s tossed none to the other team since the last snap of the first half of the Syracuse game Oct. 6. His streak without a pick reached 132 attempts in the loss to Miami on Saturday.

“My whole mindset is find a way, whatever it takes to win a game,” he said. “Every quarterback needs to manage a game, first. That’s really our main job, is to manage a game.

“In the check game, the kill game, passing game, change in protection. There’s a lot that goes under a quarterback’s belt in terms of what he has to do to manage a game. Every week is different.

“Syracuse week, they can’t stop the run. Virginia Tech week, they can’t stop the run. Smile on my face as we run down the field and score touchdowns. We threw it 30 times (in the Coastal-clinching victory at Wake Forest). We’ll do whatever it takes to win.”

Briggs believes Pickett thrives on doing whatever the gameplan dictates.

“That’s what allowed him to be the leader of our offense and our team,” he said.

When Briggs was asked if he believes that compliant role wears on Pickett, he said, “My answer is no.”

“He’s not concerned with how many times he has to throw the ball or how many times they run the ball. He’s concerned with doing his job according to what’s called that play. He takes that seriously.

“I don’t think it wears on him. I think what weighs on his shoulders the most is: Is he doing his job or is he not doing his job. “That’s what he cares about.”

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

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