Kenny Pickett’s evolution to elite prospect in his final college season at Pitt

Going back to their Mighty Mite football days as kids, Anthony Tedesco knew there was something different about his pal Kenny Pickett.

They grew up about five minutes from the New Jersey shore, and if they weren’t splashing around in the surf during the summers at Loch Arbour or Allenhurst beaches, they were playing football or sports of some kind.

“Kenny was the most competitive kid out there, whether we were playing mini-golf or football,” Tedesco said. “If we had one yard to get for a first down, he was going to do anything he had to get it. He was one of the toughest kids, but also the most selfless.

“You knew he was going places.”

Tedesco jokes that about the only thing that has changed with Pickett, who’s rewriting the record books as Pittsburgh’s quarterback and leading the Panthers to what they hope will be the school’s first ACC championship, is that his hair is “ridiculously” long.

“I mean, it came out of nowhere,” Tedesco said laughing. “He always had short hair, even in high school. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ and he just said, ‘It works for me.’ And now, he has this move where he throws his hair back when he’s sitting on the bench and his helmet is off.

“Trust me, I’ve given him crap about it.”

It’s one of the few things Tedesco, or anybody for that matter, can find to give Pickett a hard time about, and that’s whether he’s throwing touchdown passes or spreading around some of his name, image and likeness (NIL) money to teammates or the Boys & Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania.

The fifth-year senior is as humble as he is talented and a deft decision-maker, too. He spurned the NFL draft a year ago to return for this season and has played his way into the discussion of being the top quarterback selected in the 2022 NFL draft. ESPN analyst Todd McShay has Pickett rated as the third best quarterback on his board behind Liberty’s Malik Willis and Ole Miss’ Matt Corral.

“He has such a better understanding of the offense and what he’s looking for from the defense,” McShay said. “He’s more decisive, and he’s pushing his receivers hard on where to be given what the defense is showing, and that’s what a veteran leader should be doing.”

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Pickett is the only FBS quarterback to rank in the top 5 nationally in passing yards (3,171) and touchdown passes (29) and have fewer than five interceptions (three). He’s also attempted 342 passes, ranking him third among all Power 5 quarterbacks, and engineers the top scoring offense in all of college football. The Panthers are averaging 45 points per game.

Pittsburgh, ranked No. 21, is in sole possession of first place in the ACC’s Coastal Division and faces North Carolina on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) in a key conference showdown at Heinz Field. It’s another chance for Pickett to show that he belongs squarely in the Heisman Trophy race.

“He’s a man on a mission, and it’s fun to watch,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said.

It wasn’t so much fun for Duke coach David Cutcliffe last week, as Pickett passed for 473 yards and three touchdowns and ran for a touchdown in a 54-29 win over Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils. But Cutcliffe, who knows a thing or two about elite quarterbacks, couldn’t help but be impressed.

“The players all do their pregame warm-up where they throw and work out, and I went out there purposely just to watch him,” said Cutcliffe, who coached first-rounders Peyton and Eli Manning and more recently Daniel Jones. “I was blown away by how accurate he is. Oh my goodness, he puts it right where he wants it to be.

“He throws about as good a ball, as catchable a ball, as I’ve seen. The ball comes off his hand exceptionally well, and the other thing is he is much more athletic and faster than you think when you get on the field with him and he’s playing. He can move.”

When former Pittsburgh coach Jackie Sherrill spoke to the Panthers earlier this season prior to the Tennessee game, Sherrill’s advice to Narduzzi was simple.

“I said, ‘Let him win the game for you,'” Sherrill recounted. “There’s a presence about Kenny that you don’t find with just any quarterback.”

Sherrill should know, too. He coached Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Marino at Pittsburgh and played in college at Alabama alongside Joe Namath and Ken Stabler, two more Pro Football Hall of Famers.

“Kenny’s one of those players who’s really, really good, but doesn’t act like it because he’s never taking any of the credit,” Sherrill said. “It’s always his teammates that he’s giving the credit to. As a player and a coach, I’ve been able to be around some great ones, and I’ll put it this way about Kenny: If he were at Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State or anywhere, he would be the starter.

“That’s the best compliment you can give him.”

When Pickett went looking for answers about his NFL stock last December, he wasn’t looking for compliments. He was looking for cold, hard facts and went straight to one of the best players to ever play the position for advice.

“That was a pretty big life decision I had to make last year and put a lot of things in perspective for me,” Pickett said. “It helped me mature because I knew that I needed to listen to the people who were going to tell me the truth based on real research and not listen to the people who were going to tell me what they thought I wanted to hear.”

Peyton Manning was one of the first people Pickett consulted as he weighed his decision, and Manning — who returned for his senior season at Tennessee — was brutally honest with Pickett.

“The consensus I’m getting is Round 5. Is that where you see yourself as a player?” Manning told Pickett.

Manning, who already knew Pickett from their time together at the Manning Passing Academy, didn’t have to say a lot more.

“It was a quick answer for me — no,” Pickett recalled. “I knew right then that I was coming back. I have a lot of confidence in what I can do, and that’s not where I saw myself. I wanted to come back and give it one more shot, prove where I belong and prove that we were capable of having a special season at Pitt.”

Only once has Pitt won 10 or more games in a season (2009) dating back to 1979 to 1981 when the Panthers won 11 games in three consecutive seasons. If Pickett could help guide this team to a double-digit win season, he could etch his name up there with some of the Pitt greats, names like Tony Dorsett, Hugh Green, Larry Fitzgerald, Curtis Martin, Mark May, Bill Fralic, Mike Ditka and Marino.

As Pickett has eclipsed some of Marino’s records at Pitt, he’s heard from Marino via text and on social media.

“He’s the guy you chase when you sign to play quarterback at Pittsburgh,” Pickett said. “He’s a heck of a role model to have, and it means the world to hear my name anywhere close to his.”

Over and above Manning, Pickett had a support group closer to home to lean on for advice this offseason. His father, Ken Pickett, as well as Narduzzi and Pitt offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple, were also a big part of the discussion. Whipple coached for six seasons in the NFL and was the Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterbacks coach in 2004 to 2006 and mentored Ben Roethlisberger when he broke into the league.

One of the people Whipple sought input from was current Alabama offensive coordinator and former NFL head coach Bill O’Brien, whom Whipple coached at Brown University.

“He just told me that Kenny would get so much better with another year, and that’s exactly what he’s done,” Whipple said. “He takes so well to coaching and does things on his own. You don’t have to tell him, and the other players see that. So many of the [general managers] and scouts I talked to mentioned Mac Jones and Joe Burrow and how much their stock rose with another season of college football.”

Pickett — who is just 112 passing yards away from overtaking Alex Van Pelt as Pitt’s all-time leading passer — is an anomaly in today’s college game and perhaps the last of his kind. He’s started in at least one game for five straight seasons, his only start as a true freshman in 2017 coming against No. 2 Miami in a season-ending 24-14 upset of the Hurricanes.

“He’s a rarity in this day and age of college football with quarterbacks leaving so early for the NFL,” said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper, who has Pickett rated as the top quarterback in the 2022 draft . “Like Joe Burrow when he came out, Pickett will be a 24-year-old rookie signal-caller in the NFL next season.”

The running joke in college football circles is that Pickett has been Pitt’s quarterback since the Reagan Administration. He’s even moving into the stratosphere of former Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow as the player who has seemingly played college football for at least a decade.

“He’s the new Renfrow,” Tedesco quipped. “The only difference is that Kenny’s been there for 17 years. But man, nobody deserves this more than he does. He’s been working toward this ever since I can remember.”

And he’s done so with a rare blend of dogged determination and astute patience.

“Everybody wants to speed up the process,” Narduzzi said. “Kenny has finished the process, and he’s made himself a lot of money, and more importantly, has finished his legacy at the University of Pittsburgh the way he wants to. It’s all in his hands right now and he can do whatever he wants to do.”

Had Pickett not been injured last season, it might have been more tempting to pull the trigger and go to the NFL. He suffered a nasty injury to his left ankle (a Grade 3 high ankle sprain and Grade 2 sprains on the inside and outside of his lower ankle) against Boston College in the fifth week of the season. He reentered the game after the injury and somehow played through the pain. Less than 24 hours later, he was undergoing tightrope surgery, the same procedure former Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had in 2019. Pickett was back on the field in 26 days, one day sooner than Tagovailoa.

“That’s the kind of dude he is,” Narduzzi said. “He could have said, ‘Hey, I’m done. I’m resting this thing. I’m not getting cut,’ but he wanted to do it and do whatever he could to play and help this football team. He was banged up, but he played through it and never bitched once and never said, ‘Coach, I can’t do this or I don’t know if I can practice today.’

“No, this guy never said one word, had it fixed, got in therapy and came back out there as fast as he could, because that’s who he is.”

He’s also as real as it gets and the antithesis of the Big Man on Campus.

One of Pickett’s roommates is the team punter, redshirt senior Kirk Christodoulou. He’s had the same locker mate, cornerback Damarri Mathis, since his freshman season. Every week, he takes his offensive linemen out to eat at the Spirits & Tales restaurant on the top floor of the Oaklander Hotel, a bill that’s covered as part of Pickett’s NIL deal with the restaurant.

During his bye week this season, Pickett went to visit Tedesco and watched him play. Tedesco is a linebacker at Delaware Valley University, a Division III school 25 miles north of Philadelphia.

“He’s one of most humble kids you’re ever going to find,” Tedesco said. “That comes from his family. They’re always caring, sharing and thinking about people other than themselves.”

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Pittsburgh QB Kenny Pickett is using NIL deals to treat his offensive line to weekly dinners and help the local Boys and Girls Club. He also has a couple of deals for himself.

Pickett and Tedesco were coached by their fathers, Ken Pickett and Pat Tedesco, all the way through youth sports. The two families still vacation together, and they formed a close bond with other kids in the Oakhurst, New Jersey, area that has endured to this day.

As Pickett began to blossom as an athlete, he had several opportunities to transfer to private schools, but chose to stay with his childhood buddies and go to Ocean Township High School.

“He had played Pop Warner with most of those kids since he was 6,” Ken Pickett said. “There were other schools who wanted him to come play there, more prominent schools maybe, but Kenny didn’t want to go anywhere else. I remember him saying, ‘You know what, I want to stay with the kids I’ve been with my whole life.’ That’s what was most important to him, friendships that will last a lifetime.”

Pickett comes from a family of athletes. His dad, still sporting the flattop crew cut, was an All-American linebacker at Shippensburg University, where he was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame. His mother, Kasey, played soccer at Kutztown before injuring her knee. His sister, Alex, was a three-time all-conference performer in soccer at East Stroudsburg. Pickett’s grandfather on his mother’s side, Bevin Irvin, was a basketball player and took Pickett to countless AAU basketball tournaments when he was a kid. Pickett played in several of the same AAU and 7-on-7 leagues as Oregon quarterback Anthony Brown, who’s from Aberdeen Township, New Jersey.

The sport Ken Pickett thought his son had the brightest future in, at least early on, was baseball.

“He was a pitcher and could really throw it and played against a few kids who went on to play in college and are now in the minor leagues,” Ken Pickett said. “Ultimately, some of his quarterback coaches felt like pitching might be screwing up his delivery, so that sort of ended his pitching days.”

And whereas Pickett liked all sports, and according to him was a lights-out shooter in basketball, he loved football. Not only that, but he hit a dizzying growth spurt once he entered ninth grade.

At the start of his freshman year in high school, Pickett said he was 5-7 and around 130 pounds. When he enrolled early at Pitt less than four years later, he was 6-2 and 193 pounds.

“Had I known I was going to be 6-3, I might have stuck with basketball a little longer,” joked Pickett, who expects to test out around 34 or 35 inches in the vertical leap for NFL scouts.

Pickett grew so much in high school, especially from his sophomore to the end of his junior year, that his parents were seemingly buying him new clothes or new shoes every three or four months.

“Every time his mother washed or dried his sweatpants, they would become high waters,” Ken quipped.

Pickett, Pitt’s career leader in total offense (11,965 yards) and touchdown responsibility (88), thinks the main reason he wasn’t more highly recruited out of high school was because he didn’t start to grow until later. He initially committed to Temple as a junior and didn’t have any Power 5 offers at the time.

“That summer before my senior year is when I started to get more looks,” said Pickett, who was also wooed by North Carolina later in the recruiting process. “But Pitt came along, and I committed in June.”

Ken Pickett said his son really hit it off with Narduzzi during the recruiting process and that Narduzzi made Pickett a priority.

“Kenny is a very loyal kid, and I think that’s why he and coach Narduzzi are such a good fit,” said Ken Pickett, adding that Narduzzi bringing in Whipple for these past three seasons has really refined Pickett’s game.

Whipple already knew all about the Pickett bloodlines. As New Haven’s head coach, Whipple coached against Ken Pickett and Shippensburg in the Division II playoffs 30 years ago.

“I know your father. I coached against him. He won’t remember it, but I do,” Whipped told Pickett the first day they met.

They’ve been pretty much inseparable ever since, and Pickett has grown in every facet of his game under Whipple, in particular his pocket awareness, pocket discipline and connecting on the deep ball.

Cutcliffe doesn’t really remember Pickett from the recruiting process, but he definitely remembers Pickett the first time he saw him at Pitt.

“The first time I saw him, when he came on the scene, I thought, ‘Man, he’s good. He’s a draft choice,'” Cutcliffe said. “That was my blink reaction, “Who is this kid, because I didn’t know of him?’ But when I saw him, how gifted a passer he was and he commanded that offense, it didn’t take me long.

“So what he’s doing now is not a surprise to me at all.”

Pickett is too locked in to reflect in any detail on his journey from the Jersey shore to the Steel City.

“I know I found a home here with a community, coaches and teammates that have supported me the whole way through,” Pickett said. “I also know that we’re a long way from being through.”

His parents have certainly enjoyed the ride. They’ve seen every game of Pickett’s career except the Boston College game a year ago, and the only reason they didn’t make that trip was because COVID-19 restrictions prevented fans from attending.

From the time he made his decision to return to school, Pickett has never once looked back. Now 23 with a marketing degree in hand, he’s in his final few weeks as a college student.

And these final few games are the most important of his college career.

“We’ve grown so much as a team, and my success here has stemmed from the team,” said Pickett, who will make his 46th career start Thursday against North Carolina. “I’ve put everything into this team, this season, and it’s going as planned. There’s a lot of work to do. We want that championship, and that’s what we’re hunting.”

And maybe then, Pickett can follow up on his plans from the Clemson win last month when he said in his postgame television interview on the field that he was going to “go have a cold one.”

Only this time, if the Panthers can keep winning, it might be a cold one … or two.

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