PITTSBURGH — A year ago, Kenny Pickett was a backup quarterback desperately trying to stay out of the way.
Learn in the shadows. Absorb what he could from his new Pittsburgh Steelers teammates without being a distraction.
So as his rookie season began, he did what he could to hide in plain sight, to rarely be seen and almost never heard, careful to give then-starter Mitch Trubisky all the space he needed.
Pickett knew his time would come, the way the time always comes for quarterbacks taken in the first round of the draft, whether they’re ready or not. He vowed — he’s always vowed — to be the former and not the latter.
That drive is what turned a lightly regarded three-star recruit into a Heisman Trophy finalist and ultimately a first-round pick tasked with replacing a future Hall of Famer. Pickett has paired that relentlessness with an innate understanding of the big picture and where he fits in.
Last fall, that meant staying in the background until coach Mike Tomlin officially turned the offense over to him. Now, firmly entrenched as the starter as the opener against San Francisco looms on Sunday, it means embracing all the hype and all the expectations after a perfect preseason without losing perspective.
His teammates saw enough over the past 16 months to vote Pickett as one of four captains for the 2023 season. It wasn’t the stats (which were modest at best). It wasn’t the six wins in his final seven starts (though it helped). It was something else. Something difficult to articulate.
“Kenny has that ‘it’,” left tackle Dan Moore Jr. said. “I don’t know what ‘it’ is, but he has ‘it.’”
Asked if he could be more specific, Moore just smiled.
“You can’t describe ‘it,’” Moore said. “You either have ‘it’ or you don’t.”
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi saw that ‘it’ almost immediately after Pickett signed with the Panthers seven years ago in college. Pickett was buried on the depth chart as a freshman. By the end of the season, he had authored an upset of second-ranked Miami.
Yet he never put on airs. Still doesn’t. The college player who made sure to take his offensive linemen out regularly is the same player whose still-nondescript locker is jammed into a corner near longtime Steelers defensive captain Cam Heyward.
Pickett takes a blue-collar approach to the highest-profile position on one of the highest-profile teams in the highest-profile sport in the country.
Not as preternaturally gifted as some of his counterparts, he’s compensated by pouring himself into his work. His teammates see the dedication. That dedication gives Pickett currency, even on a team littered with veterans.
Narduzzi saw it over the course of five largely successful seasons at Pitt. It’s hardly a surprise to him that history seems to be repeating itself now that Pickett is on the other side of the building the Panthers share with the Steelers.
“He’s just got a way about him,” Narduzzi said. “He’s not afraid to speak up. … He’s not going to step out of bounds or cross the line. But he’s not afraid to give his opinion on something.”
Qadree Ollison was a senior running back at Pitt during Pickett’s first season as the starter in 2018. Five years later they’ve reunited with the Steelers after Ollison joined the practice squad earlier this week. It’s a full-circle moment Ollison saw coming a long time ago.
“Once he was the (starting) quarterback, he’d come in the huddle and take command,” Ollison said. “You wouldn’t have known that he was a freshman or a sophomore. Now it’s like on a whole other level. … He’s running the whole show.”
A show that looked dangerous during the preseason, when Pickett led the Steelers to five touchdowns in each of the five drives he was on the field. That percentage is sure to go down on Sunday against San Francisco’s star-laden defense.
It’s in those moments when things get sideways that Pickett’s leadership and growth will be tested. It’s a challenge he’s been preparing for for a long, long time. He showed as a rookie that he could play in the NFL. The next step will be excelling.
“I’m not looking to prove anything,” Pickett said. “I’m looking to go out and win.”
And this time around, that will likely be by trying to do more than simply not lose. Pittsburgh didn’t exactly let Pickett loose as a rookie, instead asking him to take care of the ball and avoid mistakes so the NFL’s highest-paid defense could make the difference.
The goal in 2023 is to be more balanced. The Steelers spent most of the offseason talking about the need to push the ball down the field. Pickett spent his limited reps during exhibition games putting his arm where offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s playbook is.
Pickett began 2022 on the sideline wearing a headset. The view will be far different on Sunday. He’ll walk out to midfield for the coin toss as one of the four Steelers captains. The future he long planned for is finally here.
“He’s a grown man now,” Ollison said. “He’s QB1.”
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