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Pickens has always been ahead of the curve
Rookie wide receiver has been a highlight catch for the Steelers
By Dale Lolley  Nov 03, 2022

Steelers wide receivers coach Frisman Jackson didn't know who George Pickens was the first time he saw him Jan. 1, 2020. He certainly figured things out pretty quickly.

Pickens, then a freshman wide receiver at the University of Georgia, caught 12 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown – tying a single-game school record – as the Bulldogs topped Jackson's Baylor Bears team, 26-14.

"He went off with like 200 yards receiving," Jackson said of the Steelers rookie and second-round draft pick. "I'm like, 'Who is this dude?' It's crazy how life works. I end up going and working him out. I found out who he really was."

Little did Jackson know that a few years later, he would find himself coaching Pickens with the Steelers. But Pickens always knew he was destined for the NFL.

It was something for which he trained from the time he was a youngster growing up in Hoover, Ala., located just south of Birmingham.

It was a big dream, but Pickens has always dreamt big.

He was driven to become a star. It's what he worked and strived for from the time he hit middle school and watched as his older brother, Chris Humes, who spent time with the Raiders and then in the CFL, went through the recruiting process.

"My brother played defense. He wasn't that tall, but he was physical and he played like a linebacker, box safety, but he ran like a 4.3," Pickens said. "So he played corner and safety. That aggressiveness by him really molded me. We're seven years apart, so he would be in high school and I'm in middle school. I'd go against him at home and I'm trying to do my moves and it's not working. He's way more physical and strong.

"I was like, 'Oh, you've really got to get to this level.' Then he started getting recruited and we're seven years apart. Now, I'm still in middle school and he's in his junior, senior year and I'm going to the 'Bama game, the Auburn game, Tennessee. OK, I've got to get to this level to play. When I saw that, I got more serious in terms of working out, trying to eat right. You try to do all the right stuff. At that age, when I locked in on that, I started getting super good. I'm not going to lie."

No, Pickens is not is not shy about his talents. He knows he's brimming with it. All professional athletes have a level of athletic arrogance. They have to believe in their talents or they won't likely stick around long at the professional level.

But Pickens, much like some of the ridiculous plays he makes on the field, takes it to another level. He's good. He knows it. And he's not afraid to let others know.

When you work as hard as he does and meld that with the natural talent he has, why not?

"He claims that he's an alien," Jackson said with a laugh. "Some of the stuff that he does, I'm starting to believe he might be one. He has freaky athletic ability, especially for someone as big as he is. I haven't personally coached one, but you see guys, the Randy Mosses, the Calvin Johnsons, that can move and contort their bodies in different ways that, normally, guys around their size couldn't do. But he does it pretty naturally."

Pickens plays like a much smaller receiver in a larger man's body because when he was getting beaten up by his brother, who eventually went to Arkansas State, he had to learn the tricks of the trade to get away from his bigger, faster brother at Hoover High School.

"Most definitely. I never looked at it that way," Pickens admitted. "I always worked out with my brother. We would always be there. People would try to come, and we'd be like, 'hold on,' because we would be doing serious work. Somebody else wasn't going to be as serious.

"I would go against him and I would be doing my moves and I couldn't beat him. I couldn't get around him and he could run with me. So when I figured that out, I was trying to get shifty, trying to get quicker. Every little thing. I would watch him and see if I could push him, because I couldn't win any other way. I would catch little things in his game to try to screw him up."

By the time Pickens made it to Hoover High School's team, then-head coach Josh Niblett, who has since moved on to Gainesville High School in Gainesville, Ga., knew early he had something special – even if Pickens wasn't the 6-foot-3, 200-pound specimen he is now.

"He might have been 5-10, 5-11," Niblett said. "His sophomore year, he grew more to be 6-2, 6-3. He just kept filling out, getting bigger and stronger. I knew as a sophomore, he didn't start as a sophomore for us, but he played. He loved running scout team. Our guys couldn't stand covering him. He's dabbing for balls, going up over guys.

"He just made us really good because he wanted to compete. All the way up through his senior year, he'd try to jump in there and run scout team. He's just a guy that doesn't like standing around. He doesn't like just going against the look team. He wants to compete. He wants as much good work as he can get."

And that includes even in the days following doing things like winning the MVP of the Sugar Bowl.

Just a couple of days after Pickens had put on a show on a national stage against Jackson's Baylor team, Niblett was driving past the stadium at Hoover High School and saw someone on the field working out.

"I remember when he won the MVP of the Sugar Bowl. The game was played on a Thursday, maybe. I remember driving up to the school at Hoover on a Saturday morning and I looked down on the field and there was a guy down there by himself doing drills, and it's George," Niblett said. "Two days removed from being MVP of the Sugar Bowl. That just goes to tell you how much he loves playing the game and wants to be really good at his skill.

"That's what George loves to do, play football. That's what he lives for. He wakes up every day wanting to be a great football player."

And he did it in a big way at Hoover, an Alabama powerhouse.

The Buccaneers, already a multiple-time state champion, added two more in Pickens' sophomore and junior seasons.

Niblett always wanted to challenge his teams and had no issue scheduling some of the toughest schools in the south.

"I remember when IMG (Academy) came to play us George's junior year. They put three different corners on him," Niblett said of the Florida-based powerhouse. "They've got the best of the best as far athletes go and picking guys to come play for them. All their guys are four-star guys and five-star guys. For them to have to put three different guys on him, they didn't have a guy that could cover him.

"His catch radius, you just get the ball around him. He's good at bodying up on guys. He's very physical. That's what makes him really good at what he does. And he can control his body. He's always been at a different level. What's really neat, when he was in high school, you can't tackle him one-on-one. He made so many run-after-catches where he's breaking tackles, even the guys that are great tacklers, he's just so slippery. He was really good at it."

That IMG Academy team included future college star defensive backs such as Andre Cisco and Greg Newsome. It didn't matter.

Pickens had seven catches for 102 yards and a touchdown, though Hoover lost, 32-21, to IMG, then ranked No. 2 in the country. Included in those catches was a 27-yard reception in the third quarter on which he lept over two IMG defenders to come down with the football.

The circus-type catches Pickens makes have quickly become a thing of legend in Pittsburgh. His one-handed, 36-yard catch against the Browns in Week 3 of the NFL season in Cleveland was immediately tabbed as the "catch of the year." Thing is, anybody who has been around Pickens for even one practice has seen him make those kind of grabs on a regular basis.

"He outdid some of those with the ones he did in high school," Niblett said. "It's just crazy. Some people dream about doing it after the fact. Some people dream about doing it before the fact. George dreams about doing it during the moment. That's what makes him so special. A lot of the things he's able to do, a lot of people dream about doing before the fact, but can't do it. Or, after the fact, they wish they had done it. He's doing it during the fact and getting it done.

"That's the way he trains, and that's the way his mindset is. Any opportunity when that ball is in the air, he doesn't care where he's at, whether the ball is going to be on the outside, back shoulder, is it over the top? Do I have to dive for it? George would work on that stuff because who's to say the DB isn't going to grab your arm and you've only got one hand? How are you going to make the play? So, he's put himself in every one of those situations by how he trains."

Pickens said he used to sit in the classroom at Hoover and visualize those things in his mind and then go onto the practice field and do them. He kept challenging himself to come up with crazier grabs in order to master his craft.

And the ones he hasn't practiced – he just does them in the moment.

"That's literally how it goes down," Pickens said. "That's how my whole life has been. I make those crazy catches. And those crazy catches get televised. I had crazy catches in high school. That's probably why Coach Niblett said that. Unless you've got the old tape, you really didn't see it. We're in Alabama. If I had been in Cali(fornia) it would have been seen. But we didn't get that much publicity.

"In high school, I used to do crazy things. I used to be in class thinking about it. People would see me. I had my headphones in and I'd go to class. I would never really do the school work. That was my biggest problem in high school. I was super-intelligent. I understood what we were doing. People would be like, 'Do your school work.' I would be like, 'I understand it. I'm trying to master something else.' I would go out for practice after school and literally do it."

Pickens' mind was always locked in on going to the NFL.

He blossomed as a receiver on former Auburn star Cam Newton's 7-on-7 team with a number of other big-time recruits, becoming one of the nation's most sought-after recruits.

Though Pickens had initially committed to Auburn, he changed his mind and decided to attend Georgia, instead. He wanted an opportunity to win a national championship.

That's why after tearing his ACL in the spring following his sophomore season, Pickens attacked his rehab in the same way he attacks a football when it's in the air.

Ron Courson, Georgia's Senior Associate Athletic Director and long-time director of sports medicine, was in charge of Pickens' rehab. As soon as Pickens underwent the surgery to repair his ACL, he began plotting the course to return to the football field that fall for the Bulldogs.

His reasoning? He wanted to be a part of what everyone felt was a strong Georgia team that had a chance to win the national championship.

Courson cautioned Pickens that returning to play might set him back in terms of his long-term goal of playing in the NFL. But Pickens was insistent upon returning as quickly as possible, if he risked reinjuring the knee.

"When you do a rehab, you try to project and get a schedule. We talked about, early on, let's take it step-by-step, and if you work really hard and everything goes well, you can make it back by the end of the season," Courson said. "But you're always realistic that it may not work that way. We can definitely get you well so that you can have the career you want to and go where you want in the draft.

"Fortunately, it worked out well, everything the way he wanted. He was able to come back and finish out his last year and contribute in a meaningful way and help us win a national championship and still go on and pursue his goal of an NFL career, as well."

And sometimes, it was a matter of slowing Pickens down.

"Without a doubt," Courson said. "That's actually a good scenario. You want people who want to push hard. He's very goal-oriented. He knew what he wanted to do. Sometimes, you had to pull the reigns on him.

"But I'd rather have that than the opposite. You didn't have to work at pushing him. He's very self-motivated, very driven. We told him all along, the same attributes that make you a heck of an athlete and the discipline are going to help you from a rehab standpoint, too."

For Pickens, rehab was easy.

Sitting out while his team played? That was the toughest part. He had never had a major injury before, so he struggled with not being on the field.

"That was the problem for me. I was chilling so much, there was nothing I could do," he said. "It was like being in a jail. You want to break out. That's how I was. I'd go to practice to help the receivers. They'd be running a route, and I would try to tell them what to do. I'd want to get in there and do it. But I couldn't."

Nov. 27, 2021, eight months after tearing his ACL, Pickens returned to the Georgia lineup against bitter rival Georgia Tech, catching one pass for 5 yards in a 45-0 win.

He finished the season with five receptions for 107 yards, modest numbers to be sure. But one of those receptions was a diving 52-yard catch against Alabama that helped the Bulldogs win the national championship.

But Pickens had been on the radar of draft analysts for some time.

"I remember seeing him young. You're not paying attention to guys who aren't draft eligible because you have enough other guys to worry about, but you couldn't help but notice him," draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. "He popped on my radar. And then somebody at Georgia who has been there for a long, long time told me prior to '21, coming off the knee, he said, 'Look, if this kid's healthy, he the best we've ever had.' I said, 'Are you forgetting about A.J. Green?' He said, 'If he's healthy, I'd take him over A.J. Green.' That caught my attention. This guy had been around there forever and I have a good relationship with him, so I was like, 'Woah, OK.' It opened your eyes a little bit."

Pickens had caught the attention of then-Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert.

"He fought his way back. It was very impressive," Colbert said after the Steelers selected Pickens in the second round of the draft. "Sometimes players in those situations, they just shut it down, get healthy and prepare for the draft. He prepared to help Georgia down the stretch, and they used him in certain packages in their last few games and into the playoffs and championship game he made a big play.

"But it was impressive to us how he responded, and instead of putting that injury, letting him put him on the shelf, he fought through it and became a national champion. We felt really comfortable with where he was with the rehab at his pro day, a couple months removed from the championship."

Coming back could have backfired on Pickens, but in this case, it showed his fire and passion for the game.

"Sure, there are examples of guys for which it didn't work out as well," said Jeremiah. "With him, there were maturity concerns out there that were lingering. I think going back to help put that to bed was part of equation. It just shows that he loves the game and wants to work at it. It's important to him."

For Jackson, it helped him come full circle with Pickens.

He had been there early in his career and seen Pickens as a freshman. Now, the Steelers were sending a large contingent to work Pickens out at his Georgia pro day.

He just didn't want to screw it up.

"I trusted Kevin (Colbert) and Coach Tomlin. They've been doing it for so long. When we went down there, I pretty much knew that if this whole contingent is going to see this kid, he must have something to him," Jackson said. "So, I just had to go out there and not screw it up, not screw up my own evaluation of him. He made it easy. He went out there and some of the stuff you're seeing on the practice field, some of the stuff he's done during the games, I saw some of that during the season and a little bit of that at the pro day."

And he's continued to do it since joining the Steelers.

Every day there's seemingly another highlight-reel catch, so many so that they've become what's expected from the talented rookie.

It's certainly what he's expected from himself.

He's made those moves so many times, things just slow down for him when he's playing the game – like he's playing a video game, only he's doing it in virtual reality, while everyone around him is running in analog.

"It's like they slow down a lot. It's easier," Pickens said of games. "Practice is tougher. But the games, it's all animated. You've got the fans. You've got the TV timeouts. It's really easier. The way I understand that, a lot of players can't do that. They just play. You've got to understand the full thing or you're wasting your time."

And George Pickens isn't about wasting time.

His life is all football, all the time.

"He works. He's still got that young-guy mentality that, 'I'm Superman. I can overcome everything,'" Jackson said. "But he's putting the effort in. He's getting better at it. I'm glad Diontae (Johnson) has that kind of work ethic. He can see him working and see what he does in between series, in practice, before practice, after practice and take towards that. Diontae gets to the stadium at 8 o'clock in the morning before the games. George is starting to be one of those guys that gets there early and starts working out and getting himself ready to go. You know the work ethic is there. It doesn't hurt him to find someone to look up to rival that."

Just like he did with his older brother when he was young.

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