Panther-lair - For Pickett, 'business as usual' means something different this spring
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For Pickett, 'business as usual' means something different this spring

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Less than 24 hours after turning his first career start into an upset of a then-undefeated, then-No. 2 team in the regular-season finale, Kenny Pickett went back to work.

“It’s been the same as usual for me; I haven’t changed,” Pickett said following Pitt’s first practice of spring camp Monday. “After every season, I always pride myself on getting in the weight room the day after that game, the first day back; it’s just been a habit since I was a freshman in high school. So I kept the same tradition. It’s just business as usual.”

Except there are a few things that aren’t “business as usual” this spring. For starters, Pickett is a starter. More specifically, he is the starter - as in, starting quarterback. Head coach Pat Narduzzi, in an uncharacteristic public statement, has been very transparent about that fact, stating on multiple occasions this offseason that Pickett is entering spring camp as the Panthers’ top quarterback.

Narduzzi reiterated as much Monday morning - “Kenny is clearly the number-one guy” - even as he added remarks about expecting junior-college transfer Ricky Town to push Pickett.

Competition will be good, to be sure, but there’s one apparent message that is setting the tone for spring camp 2018:

This is Pickett’s offense. And that’s a far cry from where things were a year ago, when he arrived as an early-enrolling freshman getting his first taste of college football in spring camp 2017.

“It’s a lot different,” Pickett said. “Having a year under my belt coming into this spring was definitely huge in my progress and my growth. I think you could see that today: I was playing a lot more confident than I was last spring and I’ve been in the offense once already, so it was a good first day and I’m looking forward to more.”

If Pickett is going to lead this offense and this team, he’s got plenty to learn, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said Monday. To get a productive offseason for his young quarterback, Watson “really went back to the beginning of time with him,” honing in on all the details starting quarterbacks have to understand.

When the 2017 season started, Pickett was the third-team quarterback, which meant limited practice reps as the two-deep players, Max Browne and Ben DiNucci, got ready each week. But when Browne was lost for the season, Pickett had to be ready to go as the backup for the final half of the season. That started an accelerated learning process for Pickett, and it culminated with him starting against Miami and leading an upset of the Hurricanes.

The result of that game was obviously positive, but Watson says it was by no means an endorsement of Pickett as a finished product. So he took a two-pronged approach with Pickett: there was the “nuts and bolts of what we do,” focusing on the various protections and other elements in the passing game.

And then there was a further understanding of defenses - how and why they do what they do.

“You’ve got to understand defensive football to really understand why you do what you do. It makes you more efficient as a quarterback,” Watson said.

There’s a lot to learn, but Watson said that Pickett has something innate that is making the process work.

“Football comes easy,” Watson said. “He loves it, he loves to study it and he wants to be a really good player. That’s the way it really begins. And he’s willing to work at it. A lot of guys aren’t. A lot of guys say they are but they don’t. He says he does and he does it.

“In those respects, he reminds me of Teddy (Bridgewater). He’s a guy that relentlessly chases it. I think that’s why it comes easy for him, too: he loves it. It’s in him. It’s in his DNA. That’s what has been so fun about being around him. It’s been fun.”

While Pickett has been taking in everything Watson has been teaching him, he’s also working on something else. His role as the starting quarterback won’t just be defined by X’s and O’s, by how he reads defenses and sets protections. His success will come from how he leads the other 10 players on offense; he showed positive signs in the Miami game - teammates remarked that he was surprisingly effective at taking control of the offense - and he’s looking to build on that this spring.

“Leading, definitely being more of a vocal leader,” Pickett said. “Coming in last spring, I was a freshman and low on the totem pole, so you can’t really get up there and start talking much. But now, with a year under my belt, now that I’ve become a starter, I have to step up and take that role.”