Panthers that aged like fine wine in their athletic careers


TPN File Photo

Patrick Jones II (91) pursues a sack of UNC quarterback Sam Howell (7).

By Jermaine Sykes, Staff Writer

Some players — such as the great Larry Fitzgerald and Aaron Donald — came to Pitt and had an instant impact. Others took a little bit longer to develop.

While production may have been minimal at the start of their career, many Panthers aged like fine wine and went on to have great careers. These players did not just progress as they got older, they grew exponentially.

Quarterback Kenny Pickett

Everyone knows the story of Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett. Pickett came to Pitt as a three-star recruit out of New Jersey and earned the starting position at the end of his first season. Over the next three seasons, Pickett tallied 38 touchdown passes to 24 interceptions. While these are decent numbers, they pale in comparison to what Pickett did in 2021.

The 2021 season catapulted Pickett from quarterback to legend. Pickett’s 4,319 passing yards and 42 touchdowns were both good enough for Pitt records. Another five touchdowns on the ground brought Pickett to 47 total touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Pickett threw more touchdowns in 2021 alone than in his previous four seasons combined.

As time passed, Pickett continued to get better and better, leading to him being a Heisman finalist and a potential first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft.

Running back Craig Heyward

In Craig “Ironhead” Heyward’s first two seasons as Pitt’s starting running back, he tallied 1726 total yards and 13 touchdowns. Heyward finished sitting at No. 3 all-time in rushing yards in school history.

In 1987, Heyward rushed for 1791 yards along with another 207 in the air to come up just shy of 2000 all-purpose yards. Heyward scored 13 times on top of this, leading to him being drafted 24th overall in the 1988 NFL draft.

Running back Curtis Martin

Running back Curtis Martin was another Panther who blossomed later in their collegiate career. Martin started off his career rushing for 1,286 yards in his first two seasons along with seven touchdowns.

Similar to Heyward, the running back blossomed in his third year with the Panthers. Martin rushed for 1,075 yards along with seven touchdowns in 1993, almost replicating his production of the previous two seasons combined.

An ankle injury derailed Martin’s senior 1994 season, but he still rushed for 251 yards in a game against Texas. Martin’s late-blooming career led to him being drafted and having a hall of fame career in the NFL.

Edge rusher Patrick Jones II

Edge rusher Patrick Jones II had a very slow start during his Pitt career. Jones had four combined sacks and eight combined tackles for loss in his first two seasons at Pitt. The three-star prospect out of high school and the No. 1 ranked edge in Virginia was not living up to the hype.

The 2019 and 2020 seasons were great for Jones. Jones racked up 11.5 tackles for loss along with 8.5 sacks and four forced fumbles in 2019. This production came out of nowhere and Jones was able to duplicate it in 2020 — where he sacked opposing quarterbacks nine times with 12.5 tackles for loss.

Guard Brandin Knight

Pitt basketball also has some players who blossomed into stars later in their collegiate careers, including guard Brandin Knight. Knight had a decent start to his four-year career as a Panther.

Knight averaged 8.5 points and 5.5 assists per game in his first season in 1999. The next season he averaged 9.2 points and 5.5 assists, similar to his first season. Knight seemed like a good player, but not a star for Pitt basketball.

But Knight broke out in the 2001 season. Knight led the team with 15.6 points and 7.2 assists, along with 2.3 steals per game. He also averaged 4.8 rebounds per game. Knight took a massive step in the 2001 season, which led the Panthers to a 29-6 record and a sweet 16 birth.

Knight went on to have a good senior season, averaging 11.2 points and 6.2 points per game. Knight, a New Jersey native, became a Pittsburgh legend and Pitt retired his jersey No. 20 in 2009.

These players did not all get off to the best start in their Pitt careers, but they went on to leave a lasting impact on their respective teams. For some players, their names will be forever stitched in the Panther record books. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish, and these players’ careers aged like fine wine.