Kenny Pickett walked into Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi's office last week and spent 30 minutes laughing about the 13th-ranked Panthers' remarkable season, one that carried them to the program's first ACC title and Pickett to a prime spot on NFL draft boards.
Narduzzi knew what was coming, so he didn't so much as flinch when his senior quarterback said he was going to skip the Peach Bowl to focus on the next step of his burgeoning career. Asking Pickett to do anything more would have been selfish.
Besides, Narduzzi knows the cupboard is hardly bare. Not with Nick Patti ready to step in when Pitt (11-2) faces No. 10 Michigan State (10-2) in Atlanta next week. Narduzzi officially tabbed Patti as the starter on Wednesday as the Panthers try to win 12 games in a season for just the second time in their 117-year history.
“Nick is a guy that this entire room trusts,” Narduzzi said. “He's a good football player. He can throw the ball. ... We're excited to see what Nick (can do). It's his time in this game to show Panther Nation ... show everybody, who he is.”
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Patti played sparingly this season while serving as the main understudy as Pickett took over the Pitt record book. Pickett set new marks in touchdown passes (42) and yards passing (4,319) while also becoming the school's career leader in both categories.
“It’s obviously a huge loss for us,” said tight end Lucas Krull, named Wednesday as Pickett's replacement as offensive captain. “But at the same time, you know, we knew this was going to be a possibility just because he’s the best quarterback in this draft.”
Still, Krull and the Panthers believe they can be plenty dynamic even with Pickett wearing a headset. They still have Jordan Addison, the Biletnikoff winner as the nation's top receiver, and running backs in Vincent Davis, Israel Abanikanda and Rodney Hammond.
While Pitt will be missing both Pickett and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple — who left for the same job at Nebraska two weeks ago — the Panthers also see the Peach Bowl as a chance to prove they are far more than the fireworks Pickett produced so regularly this fall.
“I mean, this is everything right now,” senior linebacker Phil Campbell said. “I mean, it’s huge. We have a big chip on our shoulders right now. You know, we’re just trying to go out and prove, you know, one more time who we are.”
Even if Pickett, the team's unquestioned leader, will be watching instead of playing for the first time since missing two games in 2020 while recovering from ankle surgery.
Patti worked out with the team's wide receivers on his own during finals week, and the start against Michigan State comes in the wake of the Panthers landing former Southern California quarterback Kedon Slovis, who announced on Tuesday he is transferring to Pitt in January.
That means despite being a fixture in the quarterback room for the last four years, there are no guarantees for Patti heading into 2022. Still, the Peach Bowl offers him a chance to get the early lead in what could be a four-headed quarterback derby next spring if Joey Yellen and Davis Beville also stick around.
“It's a great opportunity for (Patti),” Narduzzi said. “I don't want him to stress about that either. He just needs to go out and play. He's been as locked in as anybody ... He's prepared for this moment for a long time and I've got a lot of faith in him.”
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