This is an overview of the QB roster players we have at this time. I will follow this with an in-depth look at our new transfer QB Ricky Town in a week or so. His back story is rather fascinating.
Here are the two-deep listings for the opener against YSU (on left) and then the last game against Miami (on right).
As in any year our fans’ eye turn directly to the QB position as a first response when we ask the question “How good will the Panthers be this season?” For the first time since the 2016 season the other question “Who will be the starter at QB?” has already been answered – it will be SO Kenny Pickett.
That second question really should have been asked at this time last season also, but
when head coach Pat Narduzzi brought in transfer QB Max Browne from USC it was assumed that he was the player who would take the reins and that is what happened. The problem with that however was the doubt brought forward toward the end of last year’s fall camp when rsSO Ben DiNucci began to outplay Browne.
Narduzzi wasn’t going to sit down the player he handpicked and trumpeted to be the starter so that is how that played out – until Browne went down with a season ending shoulder injury in the 3rd quarter of the Syracuse game and DiNucci was the next man up. Looking up exactly when Browne went down I ran across this gem from the post-loss coverage:
Pitt didn’t record its first third-down conversion until midway through the fourth quarter and finished 3 of 13.
“When you come in at halftime and see the opposing team has not converted a third down, that’s absolutely amazing,” Babers said.
Suffice to say neither of Pitt’s two ‘best’ QBs distinguished themselves out on the field.
Browne had one decent game against the Rice Owls, who finished 1-11 and had one of the worst pass defenses in D1 football (although not as bad as our 105th ranked pass defense which is hard to type). Other than that singular game Browne threw exactly one TD pass in regulation for the rest of his season. DiNucci didn’t fare much better either as he ended up with only 1,091 yards on 88 of 158 passing with 5 TDs and 5 INTs. His QB efficiency rating was a dismal 117.9.
Overall our total passing game was poor and ranked 73rd because of this: 224 of 362 for 2,612 yards with 12 TDs and 8 INTs for an efficiency rating of only 129.01 and that is with those four TDs passes against Rice in that one game. Subtract that game and we were 196 of 330 (59%) for 2,202 yards, 8 TDs and 8 INts for a rating of only 118.8.
Here are the total passing stats for the Panthers in ’17:
Why am I twisting this sharp stick into your eye? Well, for two reasons – first to show just how truly bad our passing game was last season and two… to infer that it almost has to get better.
And get better it will because we now have a kid behind Center who not only looks the part, but has the tools for the part and has succeeded in the part and most importantly he feels he is the best possible Pitt player for the part. That would be the returning late season starter Kenny Pickett.
He exudes confidence without the accompanying arrogance that screw over so many young and gifted athletes. And confidence in the position was something we saw absolutely none of in 2017 from the other two QBs who had playing time. That alone puts a smile on my face thinking about 2018.
I have written rather extensively about what I feel Pickett can do at Pitt since I was able to watch an extended spring practice in April of last year, thanks to E. J. Borghetti’s gracious help because I drive so far to get there for media visits. Instead of the normal 15-20 minute window in the beginning of the practice Narduzzi usually allows the media I was able to stay on the sidelines for a full 60 minutes and watch the kids go through their paces.
Because of the hype surrounding Browne (from everywhere but The POV mind you) I concentrated on watching the QBs as they went through warm ups, then their different pass pattern drills; watched a nice long 7 on 7 scrimmage then the full 11 on 11 situations drills. As much as I wanted to watch Browne to see what we had with him I kept getting drawn to QB wearing #8 out there.
I didn’t know much about Pickett when I drove up that morning – mostly factual info from the recruiting websites and some media pieces. But that afternoon I left the Southside and once home quickly wrote and posted an article really praising what I had seen him do out there – it was head and shoulders above any of the other kids we had in that position.
It was obvious then he would become the starter sooner rather than later. If you followed the QB situation closely last season you’ll remember there was some controversy regarding Pickett’s redshirt being burned for a single play when DiNucci’s helmet came off and he had to leave the field for one snap… but that didn’t bother me too much because I knew we’d see more of him before the season ended anyway – especially once Browne went out for the season.
Fast forward to our next to last game played against Virginia Tech at their place and we watched the passing of the torch from DiNucci to Pickett writ large. DiNucci started that game and did pretty well at first throwing a 12 yard TD pass to Araujo-Lopes in the 1st quarter to tie the score at 7-7. But on the next series DiNucci threw an INT on our own 27 yard line that led to a VT score and that was all she wrote for his season.
One thing Narduzzi is deathly afraid of in INTs and turnovers. That will get a kid benched ASAP.
Pickett came in and then went 15 of 23 for 242 yards at a very good yards per completion rate of 16.1 and that was that – he played out that game, almost winning it, then started against Miami and pretty much single-handedly played us to that big upset of the second ranked team in the country while knocking them out of the playoffs.
Pickett’s stat line at the end of the season didn’t really show the basic importance of his presence in our offensive backfield. Not that they are bad numbers but they aren’t something we want to see replicated by him as a bona fide starter this year: 39 of 66 (59%) for 509 yards with 1 TD to 1 INT with a QB rating of 125.9… and that passing TD was only a shovel pass to boot.
His yards per completion at 13.0 and yards per attempt at 7.7 were just average as far as Pitt QBs go. The best yards per attempt averages recently were Peterman with 9.3 in 2016 and Sunseri with 8.4 in 2012. Voytik’s was 7.8 ypc and Savage’s 7.6. For us to have a good offense this season Pickett is going to have to get that up into the 8.0+ range.
But Pickett’s running skills as a dual-threat QB really won us that game against Miami and this is where his 360° skill set really shines – he ran the ball 26 times for 96 yards at a 3.58 ypc clip – but scored two rushing TDs also.
On the season he was sacked four times for (-) 14 yards so when you factor that in when he actually ran forward with the ball he did so at a good 5.0 ypc average. We’ll see a lot more of that this season.
And that sets the stage for 2018. So we’ll have Pickett as the starter – who else will factor in?
As we go into spring drills we have three viable QB candidates; Pickett, Town and another transfer CC transfer JR QB Jake Zilinskas from DIII John Carroll (not to be confused with walk-on QB Tyler Zelinski.)
Let’s limit our discussions to both Pickett and Town because if we go past them on the depth chart we are royally screwed anyway. Pickett will start and Town will back him up. One thing to make clear with my praise of Pickett – I think he’ll be a good QB for us – however he may reach real star class fruition in 2019 or ’20.
Let’s put things in perspective with him. First off he’s thrown a grand total of one TD (shovel) pass in 66 attempts for a poor .015 ratio (or 1.5 per 100 attempts). To put that in a different point of view Voytik’s ’14 season he threw 5.5 TDs per 100 attempts; Savage had 8.8 per and Sunseri threw for 8.2 per in his 2012 season.
Of course that will change pretty dramatically with his being the starter but remember that we haven’t seen him do much on that front yet. Regardless, I think we know he’s going to do more than pull his own weight in the position. But again, don’t get expectation sky-high for this youngster as true stardom might be just out of his reach as a SO. But he’s sure opened some eyes in his short stay at Pitt so far.
Here is a bit from a guy who knows QB play – ex-Pitt HC Walt Harris:
“The thing that really excited me about him is his poise and his toughness,” Harris said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “I think it’s always great when your quarterback displays a tremendous amount of toughness. Football is a tough game and when your quarterback demonstrates it, I think it really motivates the rest of the team.”
Harris attended some of Pitt’s practices in the spring and said he saw a different player against Miami than he had a few months previous.
“He showed a lot of natural football playing ability,” Harris said. “I think with the lack of reps, starting off with Max Browne being new and getting most of the reps … as well as Ben DiNucci, it took him a while to get comfortable in the offense so that he could play up to his football playing ability. It just kind of all worked out in a crazy way.”
That begs the question of what happens if Pickett falters or gets seriously injured to the point he can’t play? Well then, we turn to the absolutely and completely untested Ricky Town to be the next man up. As I wrote above I’ll have a longer and more detailed look at Town’s high school and college experiences in a later piece but in a nutshell he has done this:
Nothing…or at least close to it.
I don’t mean to sound overly harsh, but here is a QB who was very highly ranked coming out of HS and who previously committed to three different major D1 Power Five programs – Alabama, USC, Arkansas (and now Pitt) and didn’t play a single snap. Hence his diving down a level or three to commit to Ventura, CA Community College where he started some games, played OK ball, then was benched for a better and much more successful QB.
Yes, my friends we have an all-important second string QB who was benched in his community college play. Not to make you nervous or anything…
Does that sound a bit familiar Pitt fans? But without the Community College stop? Yes, our QB bust of 2017 Max Brown had much the same background as Town has – great SoCal HS player; ranked #1 overall recruit by some sites and then… nada.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am. I Do not like Green Eggs and shams.
But Town is the best back-up we have on roster due to, in my opinion, poor QB recruiting and subsequent handling by our HC – save his one keeper recruit in Kenny Pickett. I know Pitt fans were frustrated with Ben DiNucci last year – but I’ll take a kid who has already been through atrial by fire in D1 play over a benched CC kid any day. DiNucci threw 167 passes, completed 91 for 6 TDs and 7 INTs in his career – that is valuable experience we really could use for a worst-case scenario this season.
But he was gone as soon as Narduzzi started talking with Town about transferring to Pitt and promising him the QB2 spot (more on that in the later Town article also) so that bridge was burnt. And we are left with a starting QB with tons of promise but limited action and then back up players who are completely untested at this level of play and I mean to the point that we have exactly one (1) QB on roster who has thrown a D1 pass… not a TD pass mind you but any D1 pass.
Pickett will be a good, solid QB for us, I believe that – my real question is how many leg shackles are the Pitt staff going to wrap around him to keep him from making himself an open field running target out there… and they may do just that for fear of injury and having to rely on what we have, or more succinctly, don’t have behind him as QBs.
He’s a great dual threat QB so do you roll the dice and let him go all-out and play the way we have seen him play so far in making things happen with his scrambling and rushing ability or do you turn him into a more protected pocket passer hoping to keep him upright through the entire season? With the level of talent we think he has then you let him play his game and keep fingers crossed, but mark my words – if Pickett goes down then so does the 2018 season.
Of course saying he would be a “more protected pocket passer” may be a reach because I have little faith that our OL is going to be able to keep our opponent’s defensive players out of our offensive backfield on any regular basis. The OL is my biggest area of worry in ’18 by far.
Hell, let’s really speculate at this point before spring drills; here is what I think we’ll see out of Pickett’s arm this year: 2300+ yards with a 60+% completion rate and 18 TDs with 9 INTs.
What do you think his stats will show when the dust settles?
NOTE: Do not, under any circumstances, use the phrase “Pickett’s Charge” when talking about our QB’s play – that was one of the worst military blunders in history. Pitt fans will have to come up with something else catchy to describe his work on the field of play.