FILE - Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) passes against Virginia Tech during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Pittsburgh, in this Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, file photo. Pickett returned for a fifth season hoping to help the Panthers become a factor in the ACC's Coastal Division. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)
FILE - Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) passes against Virginia Tech during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Pittsburgh, in this Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, file photo. Pickett returned for a fifth season hoping to help the Panthers become a factor in the ACC's Coastal Division. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Kenny Pickett remembers being a freshman at Pittsburgh in the summer of 2017 listening to the seniors tell the newcomers to enjoy the ride because of how quickly it goes.

He didn't think much of it at the time. There was too much for the strong-armed, strong-willed true freshman quarterback from New Jersey to absorb. His career was a whiteboard with nothing on it. His final season was a distant speck on the horizon.

Now it's here. Again. And suddenly Pickett is the old guy standing up in the room trying to impart the same kind of wisdom he once received.

“You blink, and (your time) is up,” Pickett said.

Well, almost.

Pickett participated in Senior Day last fall then opted to take advantage of an NCAA waiver issued in response to the pandemic to return for a fifth season. While the NFL remains the ultimate goal, Pickett allowed there's unfinished business to do with the Panthers.

“I think there’s an opportunity for this team to have a really special year,” Pickett said. “I’m right where I want to be. When I made the decision, I told myself I’d be all in on it. I’m all in on it and ready to go.”

He certainly looks it. The player who once seemed uncomfortable in the spotlight — a spotlight that found him immediately after he stunned unbeaten and second-ranked Miami in his first start in November 2017 — has morphed into a confident, self-assured 23-year-old. He's signed a couple of name, image and likeness deals and is even doing a weekly paid-for radio hit on a local sports talk station.

They're all part of the trappings of being a four-year starter at a Power Five school, trappings Pickett is doing his best to enjoy. While he hasn't grown an inch since arriving — he's still listed at a sturdy 6-foot-3 — Pickett seems to be walking taller. He's become an expert in Mark Whipple's pass-first offense and is eager to help the Panthers hop off the treadmill that's left them largely running in place for most of his career.

Pitt has fluctuated somewhere between 5-8 wins consistently for more than a decade, including a 6-5 mark in 2020 when the optimism surrounding a 3-0 start dissolved following losses to Miami and Notre Dame, games Pickett missed with a sore left ankle.

The setbacks highlighted just how valuable Pickett has become to the Panthers. Maybe too valuable.

There were times last season where he was often the team's best option running the ball while piloting an offense that finished 111th in the country in rushing. He had eight touchdowns among his 81 carries (a number that did include some of the 26 sacks the Panthers allowed). All that running around also left Pickett susceptible to taking the occasional big hit.

"If he has got to scramble, he has to scramble but we’d rather throw it to guys that are paid to catch the ball and run with it,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “That’s something that I think he’ll be better about doing.”

Narduzzi is well aware his team's best chance for competing in the ACC's typically up-for-grabs Coastal Division is with Pickett on the field. That means making better decisions with the ball in his hands. If that means sliding or stepping out of bounds rather than lowering his shoulder — something Pickett admits he enjoys — so be it.

“It’s just me being smart,” Pickett said. “There really hasn't been anything preached on it. I've just got to (be smart) when I'm out there.”

Intelligence has never been an issue for Pickett, who graduated with a degree in marketing and is already working on his MBA. He's thrown just 25 interceptions in 1,177 career passing attempts while climbing to third on the school's all-time total offense list (8,552 yards). He should pass Tino Sunseri (8,591 yards) during the first half of Saturday's season opener against Massachusetts. If he stays healthy, there's a solid chance he slips by Alex Van Pelt (11,148 yards) for the top spot by the end of the year.

Narduzzi believes it's unwise to be against him. He offers the show Pickett has been putting on in practice as proof.

“Right now things are really slow (for him),” Narduzzi said. “It looks like DBs and linebackers are moving in mud out there. He’s just making great decisions and he can see it all now which I think in another year, another two years in the NFL is just going to help him.”

Pickett could have made the leap to the pros this spring. He was close. Yet there was something about playing at Heinz Field for a coach whose relationship he values that led him to return for one more run.

“I have all the trust in the world in (Narduzzi),” Pickett said. “He’s obviously one of the main reasons I came back. If it wasn’t like that, I don’t think I’d be here right now.”

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