Things weren’t smooth early in the career of quarterback Kenny Pickett at the University of Pittsburgh, at least until a breakout 2021 season that saw him become a Heisman Trophy finalist, lead the Panthers to the ACC championship and ultimately become a first-round draft pick in the 2022 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Adversity and those moments of highs and lows early in his career helped shape him and mold him into the person and player he is today, which is the starting quarterback for the Steelers, one with a bright future ahead of him in the NFL.
Sitting down with Pro Football Focus’s Trevor Sikemma in early February, Pickett discussed that adversity that struck him in college during his time with the Panthers, and how he’s grateful to have gone through the experiences he did at the collegiate level, preparing him a great deal for the highs and lows weekly in the NFL.
“There’s highs and lows,” Pickett said to Sikemma, according to original reporting from PFF. “I was grateful for my experience at Pitt. I wasn’t lighting it up like I was my last year during my first couple years. Having those moments of adversity prepared me for the NFL. It allowed me to not waver too much because I’ve been there before. I knew I was going to work my ass off to get where I wanted to get to.”
Early on in Pickett’s career at Pittsburgh, he flashed late in his freshman season in 2017, leading the Panthers to an upset win at then-Heinz Field over then-No. 2 Miami (Fl.), throwing for 193 yards and a touchdown, adding 60 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries in the 24-14 win.
Entering the 2018 season, Pickett was the unquestioned starter for the Panthers, starting all 14 games under head coach Pat Narduzzi. There were highs and lows though as the Panthers went 7-7, reaching the ACC Championship Game but getting blown out by Clemson, 42-10 as Pickett and the offense were inconsistent throughout the season, scoring 50+ points twice but being held to 14 points or less six times, including three straight to close the season.
The 2019 and 2020 seasons saw Pickett progress as a passer, throwing for 3,098 yards in 2019 and 2,408 yards in nine games in 2020, but the Panthers continued to come up short in key moments in both seasons, going 8-5 in 2019 and 6-5 in 2020.
Then, it all came together for Pickett and the Panthers as the program learned how to win close games and close out the season strong, going 11-3 in 2021, winning the ACC while reeling off winning streaks of four and five games. That season, Pickett threw for 4,319 yards and 42 touchdowns on 334 completions, adding another 241 rushing yards and five touchdowns to finish third in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Alabama’s Bryce Young and Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson while winning the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award.
To his credit, Pickett never really got stuck on the highest of highs, instead going right back to work on his game as he prepared for the NFL draft. That ability to roll with the punches and not get too high or too low paid off once he was a member of the Steelers, getting limited reps in training camp, performing rather well when on the field in the preseason, and then being relegated to backup duties once the regular season started.
He continued to work hard behind the scenes, preparing like the starter and putting in the work in the film room, eventually leading to him getting inserted into the starting lineup at halftime of the Week 4 loss to the New York Jets. From there, Pickett had his rookie struggles, throwing eight interceptions in four games.
But, after the Week 9 bye week, things settled down for Pickett as he really found his groove as a starting quarterback in the NFL, helping the Steelers going 7-2 down the stretch to finish 9-8. The adversity he faced in college and the rollercoaster ride that his time at Pitt was prepared him for daily life in the NFL.
He remained even-keeled throughout, never got too high or too low and just leaned in on his preparation, which paid off down the stretch and now has him staring at a bright future as the face of the franchise in Pittsburgh moving forward.
The key with Pickett has been the work put in off the field. It’s well-documented he has his own space inside the Steelers’ UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side where he can study film on his own, and he’s even been brought into the coaching staff meetings to get a jump on preparing for that week’s game plan, which is a huge testament to his preparation and commitment to the craft.