There are lots of ways to label Kenny Pickett, particularly the level at which he’s performing so far.
First, Pittsburgh’s quarterback is a seasoned veteran, which essentially makes Pickett an enigma in modern college football. At a time when three-and-dones and transfers are far more common, Pickett has developed over the course of five seasons in the Panthers’ program — four as Pitt’s full-time starter — to the point that he’s earned another designation from Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.
“This guy’s an NFL player,” Swinney said.
Clemson cornerback Mario Goodrich had something else in mind.
“He’s up for the Heisman,” Goodrich said.
However you choose to describe Pickett, he’s earned it. Because the Panthers’ signal caller is playing arguably better than any in the Football Bowl Subdivision heading into No. 23 Pitt’s showdown with No. 24 Clemson on Saturday at Heinz Field.
Pickett is completing right at 70% of his passes with 21 touchdown passes and just one interception through six games. He’s the highest-graded quarterback in the country, according to Pro Football Focus, and was recently named a midseason All-American by three national media outlets.
To put the kind of season Pickett is having into even more perspective, he’s passing for exactly as many yards per game as Clemson is averaging as a team (322.3). As for that Heisman talk, another performance like his others this season could take it to another decibel level.
“He’s a lot like a Joe Burrow from an experience (standpoint), calmness and accuracy,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said, referencing the former LSU quarterback the Tigers faced in the 2019 national championship game. “He can run and just makes all the right decisions. He’s having a heck of a year.”
Safe to say this is the most challenging test Clemson’s defense may face all season. Yet it’s one the Tigers have taken before and passed with flying colors.
Saturday will be the fourth meeting between Clemson (4-2, 3-1 ACC) and Pitt (5-1, 2-0) in the last four seasons, so the Tigers have already gotten an up-close look at Pickett. One of those matchups came last season against many of the same defensive players Clemson will run out against him this weekend.
The Tigers dominated both games. In the 2018 ACC championship game, which came at the end of Pickett’s first season as Pitt’s full-time starter, he went just 4 of 16 for 8 yards. Last season, Pickett only threw five interceptions against teams not named Clemson. He nearly matched that with four against the Tigers as part of a 22-of-39, 202-yard passing day.
Clemson forced Pickett into six total turnovers in those two games. The combined score? Clemson 94, Pitt 27.
“Then we made a bunch of plays,” Swinney recalled of his defense’s performance against Pickett so far. “We capitalized on the turnovers, and we got them behind because we hit some huge plays in the game.”
How did all of those takeaways come about? Pressure, mostly.
Clemson didn’t have much trouble generating it during that game three years ago with one of the most dominant defensive lines in modern-day college football with the likes of Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Austin Bryant, but the Tigers still didn’t take a passive approach. Clemson often blitzed and played a combination of zone and man coverages behind it, getting to Pickett for three sacks and knocking him around several other times. One of them was a strip sack by Isaiah Simmons recovered by Wilkins to set the Tigers up deep in Pitt territory during the first half.
Last season, a 52-17 onslaught started early with Malcolm Greene intercepting Pickett on Pitt’s opening drive. Andrew Booth cut across the field to pick him off again on a flea-flicker later in the first half. By the time it was over, Clemson had racked up six sacks.
All of that heat on Pickett in the pocket forced the Panthers to roll him out of it at times with limited success. But this isn’t the same version of Pickett or the help around him that the Tigers saw previously.
The Panthers’ offensive line is chock full of upperclassmen who’ve been there and done that, and it’s given Pickett plenty of time to scan the field for open receivers. And he’s rarely missing them down the field.
Pickett is averaging 13.5 yards per completion behind a line giving up just 1.5 sacks per game. He threw two more touchdowns last week in Pitt’s 28-7 win at Virginia Tech, which some would consider an off week for a Panthers offense averaging the second-most points in the country at 48.3 per game.
Familiarity with the offense has helped, too. Pickett is in his third season running coordinator Mark Whipple’s system. Put it all together, Swinney said, and you’ve got a knowledgeable quarterback leaning on his past experiences to play with as much confidence as any college signal caller in America.
“He’s just a really freed-up player,” Swinney said. “He’s incredibly well coached. As I say, there’s no greater teacher than experience, and he’s got all this experience to draw upon. And he’s applying all the lessons he’s learned throughout his career, and you just see that. And when you’re in a system as long as he is, you understand all the nuances.”
Said safety Tyler Venables, “Pickett is playing with unbelievable confidence. Their offense is really clicking together. It’s going to be tough.”
Clemson will need to continue dialing up the pressure in order to get Pickett out of his comfort zone. The Tigers have been steady in that department, averaging 2.5 sacks per game, but the Tigers won’t have their best interior pocket pushers this time with Tyler Davis (bicep injury) and Bryan Bresee (torn ACL) out.
Whether it’s Xavier Thomas (team-best 3.5 sacks; nine QB hurries) and Myles Murphy (2.5 sacks) off the edge, James Skalski (nine hurries) and Trenton Simpson (seven hurries) from the second level or a blitzer from the secondary, the Tigers will need all hands on deck in that effort.
“He’s a rhythm thrower, man,” Swinney said of Pickett. “You can’t let this guy sit there and get comfortable. He’s too good.”