College News & Analysis

Pittsburgh’s Calijah Kancey continuing the program's elite pass-rushing DT lineage

It’s clear Pittsburgh has a type when it comes to their interior defensive linemen: undersized, yet uber-productive. Before Aaron Donald was on his way to a Hall of Fame career in the NFL, he was an incredibly productive member of the Panthers football program with 28.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks in his final season. Then there was Jaylen Twyman at 6-foot-2 and 285 pounds, who also finished his final season at Pittsburgh with double-digit sacks (10.5).

This year it’s Calijah Kancey, another “undersized” defensive tackle for Pittsburgh who currently leads the nation in pass-rush grade (92.3). Kancey, like his predecessors, is right around 6-foot and 280 pounds. As you would expect, given his measurables and the jersey he wears, the “Aaron Donald-like” comparisons have already begun.

“First, I would say I can’t compare myself to him,” Kancey said in an exclusive with PFF. “ He’s the goat, he’s the top dog. I appreciate people saying they see similar things in me. I hear it a lot, but those are things I can’t control.”

Kancey is taking what some would call a size disadvantage and making it an advantage when pushing the pocket. This season, he’s been incredibly disruptive, and not just for his size — against anyone, anywhere. His 32 total pressures ranks fourth in the FBS, as does his 20.9% pass-rush win percentage compared to other defensive tackles.

STAT NUMBER ACC RANK (vs. DTs)
Pass-Rush Grade 92.3 1st
Pass-Rush Win % 20.9% 1st
Total Pressures 32 2nd
Pass-Rush % 15.9% 1st
Sacks 4 2nd
Hurries 22 2nd

“A lot of people think you have to be a certain size to play the defensive tackle position,” Kancey said. “But you have to have good leverage to be a good defensive tackle. That’s how I look at it. I have an advantage with my quickness, my hands and my leverage.”

If it looks like Kancey is one step ahead of interior offensive linemen, it’s because he knows how they think. He played both sides of the ball growing up — offensive line and defensive line. He jokes (but not really) that his old coach told him that in order to play defensive line, he needed to help the team out and play offensive line. He took one for the team and agreed, and it ended up helping his pass-rush productivity, teaching him how offensive linemen think.

But when it came to the position he wanted to pursue in college and beyond, it wasn’t a debate.

“I always liked playing defensive line more,” Kancey said. “Just getting after someone. I really enjoy getting after ball carriers, disrupting plays, beating offensive linemen and the thrill of it.”

You don’t have to wait long when watching Kancey’s tape to see his athletic ability pop. In the first quarter of Week 1 this season against West Virginia, Kancey recorded his first pressure of the year as a three-technique defensive tackle, hitting both a swim move to the inside and a spin move in under three seconds to get in the quarterback’s face.

Kancey’s hands are reactive and fast. The moment a blocker thinks they have their hands locked on him, he'll hit them with a push-pull counter that creates problems for bigger opponents who are trying to stay balanced. That and more has been learned over the years from a coach who believed in him from day one.

Charlie Partridge, Pittsburgh's defensive line coach and also the assistant head coach, is the first one Kancey credits. Partridge has been at Pittsburgh for six seasons and helped make both Twyman and now Kancey into All-ACC selections.

Utilizing Kancey’s unique athletic ability on the interior isn’t something Partridge and the defensive staff at Pittsburgh have simply adapted to, either. They sought it out.

“[Coach Partridge] came up to me and said, ‘Hey, man, I don’t like you, I LOVE you,'” Kancey said. “I was like, ‘Dang, I’ve never had a coach tell me that.’ I was always hearing, ‘Oh, he’s not big enough, he’s not strong enough.’ Pitt never saw that. Then, of course, I was learning about Aaron Donald [and his measurables]. Everything about it felt like home.”

Kancey is currently No. 45 on PFF’s big board. For as much as there will be questions about his size, he’s making up for it — and even making that aspect of his profile a strength — in every way a prospective NFL team could want in the pass-rush game.

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