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Pitt QB Kenny Pickett can put himself in Heisman contention with big game vs. Clemson

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Kenny Pickett is the rarest commodity in college football these days.

In an era when top quarterbacks tend to either leave for the NFL draft as soon as they’re eligible or blossom at a different school than the one they started at, Pickett is having a throwback moment for No. 23 Pittsburgh to a day when prominence at his position was slow-cooked more than microwaved.

Now finally, in his fifth year at Pitt, the 23-year old Pickett is on the cusp of his big breakout moment. Not only do the 5-1 Panthers have a chance this weekend to take a huge step toward the ACC title at home against Clemson, but a big game from Pickett could very well catapult him into contention for the Heisman Trophy, which seems to be wide open. Pitt's lone Heisman winner was Tony Dorsett in 1976.

“I think it's entered everyone else’s mind,” Pickett told USA TODAY Sports in a phone interview this week when asked if he’d started to think about the Heisman amid a sizzling start to the season. “I’m just focused on winning games. I didn’t come back to win the Heisman or have any of those accolades. Those are all great and everything but I want to bring back a championship to Pittsburgh.”

Kenny Pickett is trying to become Pitt's most accomplished player at the position since Dan Marino.
Kenny Pickett is trying to become Pitt's most accomplished player at the position since Dan Marino.

In a chaotic and mediocre year for the ACC, it’s certainly looking like a realistic goal for the Panthers, who dropped an early season game to Western Michigan but bounced back to win their first two conference games on the road against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech by a combined 52 points.

And the biggest driver of that success is Pickett, a four-year starter who is completing 70% of his passes with 21 touchdowns to just one interception. In fact, Picket is currently on pace to throw more touchdowns this year than he did in the previous three seasons combined (38), needs just 1,165 more yards to surpass his best statistical passing season in 2019 and could become the school's career leading passer by the end of the year.

Pickett has been so impressive, in fact, that even head coach Pat Narduzzi called for him to be in the Heisman conversation almost three weeks ago when he threw for 389 yards and four touchdowns against the Yellow Jackets.

“You grow up," Narduzzi said of Pickett's year-to-year progression. "He's made himself a lot of money coming back, I can tell you that.”

Even if much of the country hasn't yet purchased tickets on the Pickett bandwagon, he’s already earned serious buzz in the NFL draft community this year where he’s now being considered as a possible late first-rounder by some scouting services.

Despite the program’s incredible history — the walls of its practice facility are adorned with photos of some of the best football players of all-time — Pitt hasn’t produced a first-round pick since Aaron Donald in 2014 and hasn't had a quarterback drafted before the fourth round since Dan Marino.

The fact that’s even a conversation now would have been pretty surprising last year to everyone but Pickett, who thought seriously about entering the NFL draft but did not like the feedback he was getting about where he likely would have been taken.

So instead, he took advantage of the extra year of eligibility the NCAA granted all players due to the COVID-19 pandemic and has made the absolute most of it both in wins and future earnings.

“I saw myself as a better player than that,” he said of his projected draft position last year. “I took all the emotions out of it and wanted to make a business decision. At the end of the day, your dealing with numbers and if you look at the business side, what's best for yourself and your future, what I took from it is I wanted to come back and improve my draft stock and give my family a better future with the decision I made.”

With each recruiting class that enters college, it’s less and less likely we’ll see many more players like Pickett who come in as three-star prospects, stick around the same program for five years and emerge as viable NFL quarterbacks.

Though Pickett did not have to wait long for his opportunity to get on the field, moving from third string to starter as a freshman after starter Max Browne got hurt and backup Ben DiNucci struggled, it’s not as if he’s had some magical career. Over the last three seasons, Pitt is just 21-17, and Pickett has been criticized sometimes harshly for having happy feet in the pocket and struggling to complete deep balls.

The way these things tend to go nowadays, especially at the quarterback position, it wouldn’t have been surprising at all had Pickett decided at some point to get a fresh start somewhere else or to just enter the draft and try to hook onto a roster.

Instead, he saw the value of growing within the same system where he and offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple have been able to work together for three consecutive years and eliminate some of those weaknesses.


See salaries for college football coaches through the years

“It’s just experience, being there before,” Pickett said said. “It’s like asking you your first year on the job versus where you are now. It’s the same for everything. Having the experience, being in situations before, seeing a lot of different defenses, playing a lot of these coordinators multiple times you’re naturally going to be more comfortable. So I think that was a huge benefit of coming back and playing more football before I go to the next level.”

Returning to school also gave Pickett the chance to take advantage of the NCAA’s new rules that allow players to earn money from their name, image and likeness. Pickett has picked up a few deals, including with the Oaklander Hotel near the Pitt campus where he treats his offensive linemen to a "Hog Dinner” every Tuesday night at the Spirits & Tales restaurant.

“It's family style, a whole bunch of food,” he said. “We’re there for an hour and a half. We talk football a little bit but really it’s having laughs and enjoying the friendships we’ve made off the field. It’s something I’ve really enjoyed this season.”

For Pickett, this weekend against Clemson could be a rare launching-pad type of game for a program that hasn’t had a ton to get excited about over the past decade. Though this Clemson team isn’t headed to the College Football Playoff, it's still a big brand name with a top-shelf defense. With a 3:30 p.m. ET window on ESPN on a weekend where there aren’t a lot of high-profile games, Saturday will be the first time many fans are able to lock in on Pickett and see what the buzz is about.

If he delivers, it very well set the table for a historic type of season.

“It’s why I came back, and I just have to continue to do what I’m doing,” Pickett said. “We have to focus on winning games and everything else will take care of itself. We have a great opportunity, and I’m excited for it.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett takes on Clemson with Heisman hopes