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Oct 11, 2017 - In Browne's absence, though, these are the two right arms coach Pat Narduzzi and Watson will rely on as P

Pitt offensive coordinator Shawn Watson likes what he sees in QBs Ben DiNucci and Kenny Pickett October 11, 2017 11:58 PM

By Brian Batko / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette From the moment he met Ben DiNucci, Pitt offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson could see how much football means to him. But the past few days, since starting quarterback Max Browne went down with an injury, there’s something a little bit different about the redshirt sophomore’s preparation in practice. “He’s always worked hard; I don’t wanna misrepresent it,” Watson said Wednesday afternoon. “I think this week, there’s just — he knows it’s his show.” Indeed, these days for Pitt’s offense, it’s the Ben DiNucci Show, featuring Kenny Pickett. Pickett, too, has come to realize that he’s not like most kids his age. That reality set in for him one day when he was watching college football and he reflexively started studying the defenses, rather than just enjoying the game, “like a normal person.” “Ah,” Pitt’s freshman backup quarterback said to himself, “I’m probably heading toward the obsessed side a little bit.”

Neither player has accomplished much to this point in his college career. DiNucci has made one start, a milestone moment that didn’t end the way he hoped it would three weeks ago at Georgia Tech. Pickett has thrown one pass, and he completed it, for 13 yards. In Browne’s absence, though, these are the two right arms coach Pat Narduzzi and Watson will rely on as Pitt hunts for an upset Saturday against No. 20 N.C. State at Heinz Field, where DiNucci now will make his first college start in his hometown — one of those surreal experiences he’ll try not to think about too much. “But I guess when you’ve got people texting you and calling you, saying, ‘Hey, good luck this weekend,’ this and that, it’s pretty cool,” said the former Pine-Richland High School star. “To just sit down for a little bit and say, ‘Hey, I live 20 minutes away, this is where I grew up, this is the hometown school, it’s pretty cool. But our main goal is just getting the win on Saturday, so nothing will be worth it unless we get a W.” For that to happen, DiNucci — who has completed 36 of 65 passes for 442 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions — will have to be at his best yet. Narduzzi said as much Monday, and the player agreed with his coach that he has plenty of room to improve. He also detailed his mentality this week in a way that lines up with what his offensive coordinator has seen.

“You know, I think in terms of going into the game and not having to worry about, ‘Am I gonna do this wrong and this is gonna happen,’ or something like that, I can trust myself a little bit more and play a little bit more loose and confident in myself,” said DiNucci, who had been in a battle with Browne as recently as two weeks ago. “Just knowing that I might have a little bit more of a leash, and can just play like me, play confident and fast.”

If he doesn’t, there’s no longer a fifth-year veteran graduate transfer to replace him. But there is a wise-beyond-his-years freshman who this time a year ago was focused on trying to pick apart the best high school defenses New Jersey had to offer. According to Narduzzi, Pickett is far ahead mentally of where most quarterbacks are at this point in their development, and Watson — a longtime coach at that position who has worked with plenty of signal-callers over the years — hardly could be more complimentary of Pickett’s football IQ. “He’s very calm, he handles a lot of information for a young guy — been only a couple guys I’ve had in my career like him,” said Watson, whose most notable pupil was former Louisville star Teddy Bridgewater. “The game goes slow for him, and that’s what’s impressive about him. We’ve always really felt like he was a guy that we could get a lot of football out of. He’s gonna be a pretty special guy, I think, down the road.”

For now, he’s the understudy. For now, it’s all eyes on DiNucci. And Watson is doing his best to straddle the line of taking advantage of DiNucci’s strengths, but helping him round out his game to keep defenses honest. “He can get outside the pocket and make plays as a runner and as a passer, so he gives you another piece. And I love his competitive edge. He’s a fiery guy, he loves to compete, so all those things really help us, and we’ll play to those things,” Watson said, before adding that DiNucci has to become more confident in the pocket. “He knows what he has to do. He knows he has to focus on just keeping the game real simple … because if we can feel him as a passer, it’s gonna better his athletic ability, and we can really feel that.” Brian Batko: [email protected] and Twitter @BrianBatko. First Published October 11, 2017 4:27 PM

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