Post-ACC Championship Game football superlatives

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Hannah Wilson | Staff Photographer

Israel Abanikanda (2) and Calijah Kancey (8) celebrate a touchdown during Pitt football’s game vs. Miami on Oct. 30 at Heinz Field.

By Jermaine Sykes, Staff Writer

Pitt experienced its most successful season in recent history this year, with double digits wins for the first time since 1981 and winning its first ACC Championship. Although the Panthers’ season doesn’t conclude until Dec. 30 at the Peach Bowl, here are some superlatives for the 2021 football season.

Most Valuable Player: Kenny Pickett, Quarterback

This year’s MVP for the Panthers is fifth-year quarterback Kenny Pickett. Pickett, a four-year starter, put up a respectable 39 touchdowns and 25 interceptions through his first four years. But his decision to return to Pitt for a final year was the best thing that could have happened to the Panthers.

In an historic season, Kenny Pickett passed for 4,319 yards, 42 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also rushed for five touchdowns. His 42 touchdown passes not only broke Dan Marino’s program record for touchdowns in a single season, but also the ACC single season passing touchdowns record.

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His record-breaking season earned him ACC player of the year honors. He’s also a finalist for the Maxwell, Walter Camp and Davey O’Brien awards. Pickett is also a Heisman finalist and might be the first Panther to win the award since 1976.

Offensive Player of the Year: Jordan Addison, Wide Receiver

Pickett’s favorite target was sophomore wideout Jordan Addison. Addison led the Panthers in receptions, yards and receiving touchdowns in 2020. With high expectations from the fans coming into the season, the self proclaimed “route runner,” lived up to the hype in 2021.

Addison caught 93 passes for 1,479 yards and 17 touchdowns. The 17 touchdowns and counting is the most in the nation for a receiver and the highest mark at Pitt since Larry Fitzgerald’s 22 touchdowns in 2003. Addison is a finalist for the Fred Biletnikoff award and will likely be a first team All-American.

The 19-year-old still has three years of eligibility remaining. But with his talent and production, he will probably depart for the NFL in 2023 when he is draft eligible. In the meantime, he continues to climb the all-time Pitt receiving ranks.

Defensive Player of the Year: SirVocea Dennis, Linebacker

The Panthers defense allowed a low 73 rushing yards per game in 2021. The leader of the Panthers’ stout front seven deserves DPOY honors.

Dennis has tallied 81 total tackles so far this season, with four sacks and one interception. The interception was a pick six against Clemson, and arguably one of the most exciting plays of the season. Dennis also has a field goal block.

The do-it-all junior linebacker has two more years of eligibility. Dennis will undoubtedly play a large role in the defense next season, which is looking to build upon a strong finish to their 2021 season.

First-year Player of the Year: Gavin Bartholemew, Tight End

Pitt had one of the best passing offenses in program history in 2021. First-year tight end Gavin Bartholemew had plenty to do with that. Bartholomew hauled in 27 passes for 317 yards and four touchdown passes. Bartholomew had big contributions in late season games against Syracuse and North Carolina.

The first-year’s season garnered an All-ACC honorable mention bid and he will be a key piece to a Panthers’ offense that looks to continue its dominance in years to come.

Most Improved Player: Israel Abanikanda, Running Back

Sophomore back Israel Abanikanda took a big leap in his second year with the Panthers. In his first season in 2020, Abanikanda racked up 95 yards on just 28 carries.

Head coach Pat Narduzzi opted for a “running back by committee” set up this season. Abanikanda split time with junior Vincent Davis and first-year Rodney Hammond. Abanikanda compiled 635 yards on 5.4 yards per carry and seven touchdowns, leading the Panther backfield.

Abanikanda was also the player responsible for one of the most memorable plays of the season — a 97-yard kickoff return against Virginia on senior night.

Most Underrated: Jared Wayne, Wide Receiver

Behind Pickett, Addison, Bartholomew and Abanikanda, the Panthers have one of the best offenses in the country. A player who played a big role and should not be overlooked is Jared Wayne, a junior wide receiver.

Wayne put up a productive 46 catches for 654 yards and five touchdowns in 2021. While Addison wound up being Pickett’s big play threat, Wayne was always there as a backup plan. His catching and yardage were good for No. 2 overall in the Panthers’ receiving core.

Play of the year: Kenny Pickett’s 58-yard touchdown run in ACC Championship Game

Pickett is known for his arm and throwing ability. But on this play, his underrated speed — along with a genius and controversial fake slide — gave the Panthers an early lead in the most important game of the season.