PITTSBURGH (AP) — Kenny Pickett was many things during his five seasons at Pitt. A quarterback who helped guide the Panthers to their first ACC title. A Heisman Trophy finalist. An icon for a program desperately in search of an identity.
And, maybe, a college football unicorn in ways that go beyond mere talent.
In an era of unprecedented player movement, Pickett stayed. He arrived on campus in early 2017 and over the course of four-plus seasons developed from a relatively unknown three-star recruit into an first-round NFL draft pick while providing coach Pat Narduzzi stability at the most important position on the field.
Narduzzi knew he was witnessing something special at the time. Now, 18 months after Pickett moved to the other side of the facility the Panthers share with the Pittsburgh Steelers and with Pitt flirting with the worst season of Narduzzi's nine-year tenure, his appreciation has only deepened.
Asked if he'll ever see a quarterback play that long with one program, Narduzzi shrugged his shoulders.
“At one school? It’s a good question," Narduzzi said. "I’ll probably say no.”
Maybe, but if you want to have a shot at winning an ACC title, it might be worth a shot.
Since the league added a championship game in 2005, no team with a starting quarterback whose college career began elsewhere has won a league title.
While transfer portal success stories abound — particularly if you play for USC coach Lincoln Riley, who has turned three transfers (Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Caleb Williams) into Heisman Trophy winners — in the ACC there's still something to be said for signing the right teenager coming out of high school and seeing where he can take you.
It's a philosophy that Dabo Swinney has adhered to during Clemson's lengthy reign atop the conference. From Tajh Boyd to DeShaun Watson to Trevor Lawrence, the Tigers rolled with their own.
And while Clemson's stranglehold on the ACC has turned into more of a loose grip — one that could escape the Tigers completely in 2023 — the teams chasing a spot in the title game have treated the quarterback position in a similar fashion.
No. 17 North Carolina has a solid chance to make it to Charlotte thanks in large part to the occasionally ambidexterous play of sophomore Drake Maye. No. 20 Duke is in the midst of a renaissance behind junior Riley Leonard.
Sure, unbeaten and fourth-ranked Florida State appears to be the class of the conference and is led by senior Jordan Travis, who played sparingly at Louisville in 2018 before joining the Seminoles. Yet Travis is also in his fifth season in Tallahassee, the 23-year-old's tenure predating the arrival of coach Mike Norvell.
Elsewhere, teams find themselves treating the portal like a football-specific version of roulette.
Pitt's chances of contending this season vanished when Narduzzi swung and missed on Phil Jurkovec in the transfer portal. What looked lik e an inspired homecoming for a former four-star recruit instead ended with Jurkovec getting benched for sophomore Christian Veilleux, himself a transfer from Penn State, earlier this month.
While Narduzzi stressed his preference would be to develop quarterbacks, the reality is that outside of Pickett, nearly all of Pitt's starters since Narduzzi was hired in December 2015 have been transfers, with mixed results at best.
Nate Peterman played well in 2015 and 2016 but Max Browne couldn't stay healthy in 2017 — which helped open the door for Pickett — and Kedon Slovis bailed for BYU after one underwhelming season last fall.
Meanwhile, most of the quarterbacks who have been recruited out of high school or transferred into Pitt early in their careers have moved elsewhere after seeing their path to the starting job blocked by more experienced transfers who came in looking for an opportunity.
It's a “chicken or the egg” problem that's hardly unique to Pitt. The one-time transfer rule combined with the rise of collectives that can essentially pay players has made it easier than ever for any player to jump from one school to the next. Taking a flyer on a player with limited eligibility left — as Pitt did with Browne, Slovis and Jurkovec — comes with inherent risk if things don't gel quickly.
North Carolina State hoped former Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong could finish his career with a flourish. Instead, Armstrong struggled and lost the starting job to sophomore M.J. Morris.
“The challenge when you have to bring the quarterback in from outside is less about the arm talent and can he throw the ball, more about what is the connection and chemistry and the fit,” Duke coach Mike Elko said. “And if you get quarterback wrong, your season’s gone.”
That's where Pitt essentially finds itself heading into a visit to No. 10 Notre Dame on Saturday. The Panthers are on the verge of failing to become bowl-eligible for just the second time during Narduzzi's tenure. The first came in 2017, when Browne was limited to six games, Ben DeNucci couldn't muster much and Narduzzi opted to throw Pickett, a true freshman, into the mix.
That season ended with a Pickett-orchestrated upset of then No. 2-ranked Miami and set the stage for what ultimately became a record-setting career. Yet Pickett needed time to grow and mature. Narduzzi's patience was rewarded with the program's first 11-win season in 40 years.
Maybe that will happen with Veilleux or sophomore Nate Yarnell (who won his only spot start last year as a freshman). Or maybe Narduzzi's staff will roll the dice in the portal once more.
“The situation we’re in in recruiting right now is it’s wide open and kids are transferring and you have to play it by ear," Narduzzi said. “There’s no exact science right now at this point. Would you like a quarterback more than one year? Yes.”
AP Sports Writers Aaron Beard in Raleigh, North Carolina and Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, South Carolina contributed to this report. ___
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football