Owen Drexel broke through as Pitt’s star center in 2021, providing the foundation of a unit that helped lead the ACC last season, and that growth came in large part because of the work put in against defensive lines faced across the ACC.
However, Pitt’s own defensive line forged Drexel and Pitt’s offensive line, one of the highest-graded in 2021, into what it is today. And Calijah Kancey, a third-team All-American defensive lineman, is a very big reason why.
“(Kancey is) definitely a special player,” Drexel said after Pitt’s spring practice earlier this month. “He blends that speed and strength more than most, so he’s definitely a special player.”
Kancey, a 6-foot-0, 260-pound three-star recruit out of Miami, Florida, has grown into one of the most underrated defensive linemen in college football — despite his All-American status in 2021. After redshirting in 2019, adding 15 pounds through a solid redshirt-freshman season, Kancey broke out with a 33 tackle (23 solo), 13 tackles for loss, seven sack, one forced fumble and one pass defended season in 2021, and he’s focused on breaking the ceiling in 2022.
“That’s the standard here, sacks and TFLs,” Kancey said earlier this month. “Everyone here is ready, a lot of young guys stepping up and a lot of older guys just polishing and knocking off the rust.”
All the way up to 275 pounds now, Kancey is one of the most physically dominant defensive linemen in the ACC. And as one of the top defenders on Pitt’s roster, and one of the older, more experienced guys on the roster, he’s embracing not just the production-based leadership but the overall day-to-day leadership role.
“This year I’m taking a leadership role as an older guy teaching the younger guys, taking the younger guys under my wings and putting everybody together so we’ll all be at one pace,” Kancey said.
Pitt defensive coordinator Randy Bates has stressed the importance of teaching basic football during Pitt’s spring practice sessions, not caring if a player is a fifth-year senior or an early enrollee freshman. It’s about teaching and learning from square one, and guys like Kancey have been counted upon to serve as leaders.
Through teaching tackling, getting off blocks, alignment and assignments, in teaching the most aggressive defense in college football, Kancey is a key factor in improving the entire defense, but his overall progression might not be immediately obvious. And that’s okay to Bates.
“Well, what happens as guys get further along in their career, their improvement gets smaller but more important,” Bates said. “You think about Aaron Donald right now, Aaron Donald trying to improve, he’s still trying to improve, but the level of improvement is so much smaller to get better. … So, our young guys make bigger leaps quickly.”
However, Kancey is still one of the veteran voices on Pitt’s defense in 2022, and he’s well aware of the impact he will have this season.
“I kinda felt like that last year, but this year I feel it more,” Kancey said. “I’m one of the older guys on the defensive line and on the defense.”
Pitt’s offense stole the show in 2021, and for good reason with Kenny Pickett and Jordan Addison, but Pitt’s defense flashes star-studded potential at times — including times when it mattered most, e.g., the ACC championship game against Wake Forest. But Kancey still sees the areas in which Pitt can improve defensively in 2022.
“As a defense, we gotta tighten up on running to the ball,” Kancey said. “Everyone knowing what each other have to do so we all can be on one page and communicate.”
Pitt finished second in college football in sacks in 2021, only trailing Oklahoma State, and no one has led Pitt in sacks since the 2019 season. With a strong group of pass-rushers, led by Habakkuk Baldonado, Deslin Alexandre and Dayon Hayes, in 2022, those numbers could sky-rocket in 2022. And Kancey will be a big reason why Pitt’s defense succeeds in 2022, across all levels.