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Later this spring, Ocean Township will hold its prom, the annual rite-of-passage for students at the New Jersey high school that serves as one of the final benchmarks along the path to graduation and the future that lies beyond.
Kenny Pickett will be at Ocean Township’s prom, but he’s already been to the “beyond” after enrolling at Pitt in January.
“It’s been a great experience,” Pickett said during Pitt’s spring camp. “It’s definitely worth it, getting in class and getting ahead of my credits plus obviously all the reps that I’ve gotten has been huge for me. If I had to do it again, I’d definitely do it.”
The dual-edged factor of midyear enrollment comes with experiencing football and school at a level not yet seen by most high school students. By enrolling early, Pickett went from having classes from morning until mid-afternoon and football later to having football first thing in the morning and classes later in the day.
That’s a significant change to the biorhythms, as they say.
“I think the football part has been a little easier for me because coming from a pro-style offense in high school, I didn’t really have as bad a transition coming in with Coach (Shawn) Watson’s offense and learning it; everything really builds off each other, so when the new installs come in, I kind of have a good idea of the old stuff and the new stuff and how to build off it, memorizing everything.
“So I’ve really had an easy - not easy, but a decent transition with the offensive part. But class, I’m not used to having two-and-a-half hour classes at night, so that’s been tough getting the hang of it.”
While Pickett has worked to transition into the college academic lifestyle, his first test in the athletic side of things went well - possibly even better than expected. From the very start, Pickett impressed the coaches - head coach Pat Narduzzi and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, primarily - with the way he has picked up the offense and executed it on the field. He has arguably been the biggest surprise of the spring, since midyear enrollees - particularly at quarterback - aren’t usually expected to do too much beyond get an early feel for the college life.
But instead of struggling, Pickett has excelled. Earlier this spring Narduzzi said Pickett was “maybe the best young quarterback we’ve had,” which is a small sample size but still worth considering when two of the other quarterbacks on Pitt’s current roster - Ben DiNucci and Thomas MacVittie - are in that comparison group.
And by the end of spring, Pickett had played himself into significant reps that mirrored what MacVittie, a redshirt freshman was getting.
“I just try to seize every opportunity that I have,” Pickett said. “They have Max (Browne) and Ben on top right now so I just try to learn from them, and when I get my shot, I just take advantage of every rep I can. That’s been my mindset.”
Part of that is innate; Pickett has “moxie” and “composure,” Narduzzi said. But part of it also comes from his training, which Narduzzi and Watson both praised. Prior to arriving at Pitt, Pickett was working with Chris Malleo, the head coach at the Peddie School in Highstown (N.J.).
Pickett gives a lot of credit for his current success to Malleo.
“He’s been a huge help in my career and I wouldn’t be where I am without him,” Pickett said. “So I give credit to him; we’ve been working together for a long time now and when I go home, I work with him. He’s been great.
“He has a great mind for the game, so just taking whatever I can from him and bringing it here has been a huge help for me. A lot of the drills that we’ve been doing, I’ve been through since I was a freshman or a sophomore. So I was kind of a step up when it comes to the drills. And all the drops - the seven-steps, the five-steps, all the footwork drills, I’ve been doing with him. So I had a solid base coming in.”
When Pickett combined that background with the teaching he picked up from Watson in the last four months to put together an impressive spring. So impressive, in fact, that the Gold Team drafted him in the run-up to last weekend’s Blue-Gold Game. He didn’t put up much in the way of stats in that game - just 36 yards on 6-of-13 passing - but he showed some of his natural abilities, like making plays with his legs.
Pickett took one sack for four yards in the game, but on three other rushing attempts, he gained 39 yards. Plus, several of his completed passes came with him on the move.
“I run when I have to run, really,” Pickett said. “I don’t look to run, but when the pocket breaks down and I can run one for 20 or 30, I definitely take advantage of my legs.”
Watson will look to take advantage of those legs, too. Pitt’s offensive playbook was limited in the Blue-Gold Game, but elements of the option plays Matt Canada installed last year were still there, and Watson will likely draw on those going forward since Pickett, DiNucci and MacVittie are all able to run.
Overall, Pickett has found a good chemistry with his new offensive coordinator, which is what he hoped would be the case when he took a leap of faith in December. Pickett had been committed to Pitt since last June, but when Canada left for LSU, Pickett had to make a decision: trust Narduzzi to make a good hire and stick with his plans for midyear enrollment, or delay enrollment and look around at other options (of which he had a few)?
Pickett opted to trust Narduzzi. And the results so far?
“It’s been perfect,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine a better coach to have. It really worked out great. Like I said, I trusted Coach Narduzzi and look what happened: I got a great coach and it’s been an awesome time so far. I’m looking forward to the future.”