Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi declined to name a starter at quarterback for Friday’s game against Miami. Instead, he said that practice this week would probably decide things between Kenny Pickett and Ben DiNucci.
But at this point in the season, there’s only one reasonable decision and that’s to play Pickett.
That’s no real knock on DiNucci. As I’ve said all year, I don’t think he’s Pitt’s long-term option at the position. But despite not being a great passer, DiNucci has at times done a very admirable job in keeping the team in position to win games. There’s no doubt that he’s done some good things for the team.
Additionally, Pickett has not been a clear-cut No. 1 guy, either. The offense has struggled with him, too, and while many will point to his 242-yard game against Virginia Tech last week as evidence of a great arm, 74 yards came near the end of the game on that short pass to Weah where he shed defenders and did the bulk of the work himself. Before that, Pickett’s passing day had been less impressive and he also threw an interception.
Still, the decision to play Pickett should be an obvious one for many reasons.
First, Pitt has a much better idea what they have in DiNucci. DiNucci is only a redshirt sophomore but it’s already clear that he doesn’t possess exceptional arm strength. While his decision-making will improve, his arm strength likely won’t - at least all that much. You’re left with an ideal backup - a guy that can help win a game if necessary but is more of a game manager. Pickett provides far more intrigue because he’s only a true freshman and two years behind DiNucci. He possesses a stronger arm and is a viable long-term option. That’s not to suggest he will or should be the long-term guy but Pitt should use this game to help them find out.
Along those lines, Pitt needs to decide if they will go the grad transfer route again when it comes to quarterback. Not playing Pickett in this game would leave that question just as unanswered as it is right now. But the Panthers can get a little more data by playing him on Friday. If he looks good, maybe you decide you can go without one in the offseason. If he looks bad, you’ve almost surely got to explore grad transfer options. Personally, if I’m Pitt, I’m bringing in a grad transfer, anyway, regardless of his performance. But if he looks bad, despite the tough competition, that decision becomes even easier to make.
I also think that Pickett just flat out earned this start. He wasn’t perfect against Virginia Tech but played a pretty strong game. He completed 65% of his passes and was 15-23 for 242 yards. I’m not the biggest Passer Rating guy in the world, but his 144.9 in that game was higher than that earned by DiNucci in any game he has played all season. Pickett was, overall, pretty impressive for a true freshman playing against a good team in a hostile road environment.
Finally, Pickett could even be the better player, anyway. Narduzzi said earlier this year that Pickett is significantly ahead of where DiNucci was at this stage of his career. I’d go a step further and argue that, despite the age difference, the two are relatively equal right now and it’s possible that Pickett is even better right now. Pickett threw a bad interception last week and has work to do as a decision-maker. But DiNucci does as well. That’s evidenced by his 5/5 TD/INT ratio and his struggles to throw the ball away when under pressure. And while DiNucci’s scrambling ability is heralded as excellent (it is), Pickett’s is just as good. At the end of the day, I’m not 100% sure that DiNucci surpasses Pickett in any one area, to be honest.
Could DiNucci be a better player? Absolutely. Pickett is not the guarantee that many fans think he will be. And as I said, DiNucci is still only a redshirt sophomore. Too often, fans expect underclassmen quarterbacks to emerge as stars. It happens, but often does not. But at this stage in the game, I think the difference between the two is negligible and it makes more sense to play the guy that likely has a better shot at being the future quarterback.
And that’s Pickett.