The Still Underrated Dominance of Pitt’s Calijah Kancey Continues to Grow
If there is a school in the country where interior defensive linemen legitimately receive their flowers, it would be hard to find a more suitable one than Pitt.
Aaron Donald broke the mold as an undersized defensive tackle over a decade ago, and his NFL career has worked out well enough. In the years since Donald’s reign began, Pitt has produced numerous NFL defenders — defensive tackles, edge rushers, linebackers and defensive backs aplenty.
Jaylen Twyman was Pitt’s last defensive tackle drafted, a sixth-round selection of the Minnesota Vikings in 2021, but Calijah Kancey has that ‘IT’ factor that can’t really be taught. Even with Charlie Partridge in the room.
And as good as Kancey was last season, on the way to an All-American campaign alongside Kenny Pickett and Jordan Addison, he’s been even better this season.
Jake Kradel goes up against Kancey every day in practice, either as Pitt’s long-time right tackle or as the current starting center, and that interior matchup has arrived on more than one occasion. It’s Kancey’s speed and versatility that wreak havoc.
“Just his burst,” Kradel said Wednesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “His get-off. He goes from his first move to his second move, and if you stop that, he’s going to his third move and beating you with that. You’ve gotta be able to counter everything and he’s just really explosive.”
Even in a 6-foot, 285-pound frame, Kancey’s larger-than-life impact is undeniable. Kancey’s 91.4 Pro Football Focus pass rush grade is the highest of any defensive lineman in the country (his 90.3 defensive grade is sixth), and his numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Kancey has racked up 34 quarterback pressures this season, forcing 23 hurries, hitting the opposing quarterback six times and recording five sacks. He’s also winning just about 20% of his pass rush snaps against blocking this season.
When defending the run, Kancey has missed just two tackles this season (a 10.5% miss rate), and he’s recorded 11 run stops.
It’s all come against constant double teams, a situation that a certain predecessor in Los Angeles finds himself in quite often, but Kancey has worked hard all season — and through the offseason — to find a way to break interior double teams.
“You wanna play half a man on the guy you’re aligned on, and as soon as you feel a pressure from the other guy, that’s when you shift your weight against him and then just use your momentum to split them,” Kancey said Wednesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Kancey’s dominant, game-wrecking ability causes enough problems for opposing offenses, as evidenced by the complete shift in defensive pressure upon his ejection from the North Carolina game a couple of weeks ago, and Kradel has also seen firsthand how the presence of an elite interior lineman forces changes in offensive scheme.
Especially when an interior defensive lineman requires a steady dose of double teams.
That can really — then it puts other guts on islands,” Kradel said. “When you’re double teaming a three-technique, you’re leaving the two defensive ends on islands, plus you’ve got the nose guard or other three-technique. So, it really makes the other guys have to lock in.”
When Kradel looks at Pitt’s defensive line, the attention on Kancey — which often doesn’t take him out of a game when it comes to overall impact — opens up opportunities across the line for a player like Deslin Alexandre or Habakkuk Baldonado. But it doesn’t stop there. A blitzing linebacker like SirVocea Dennis is also freed up.
Even when looking at a game like Syracuse, a game in which PFF graded Kancey’s performance in getting after the opposing quarterback as his worst of the season (despite a sack and tackle for loss), he opened up holes for a six-sack, nine-tackle for loss afternoon.
Pitt held Syracuse to just 145 yards of total offense, 25 rush yards on 25 carries, and thoroughly limited ‘Cuse all afternoon. It was the sort of performance Pitt’s defense hangs its hat upon.
“I think that’s the standard here,” Kancey said. “That’s something that we always want to do every game. That game we got it done. We did what we had to do, guys stayed in their lanes, made plays and we had a party in the backfield.”
There was a party in the backfield, without a doubt, against Syracuse. It was a season-high in sacks, led by Alexandre’s 2.5 sacks, and it was a team performance that has come to be expected in recent seasons. Pitt hasn’t reached the levels of success over the last three seasons, but Kancey has been as advertised.
And despite a repertoire of pass rush moves that have resulted in 12.5 sacks as an interior lineman over the last three seasons, Kancey isn’t able to simply hone in on either a speed or power move. That would be too simple. It takes a blend of speed, power and skill to succeed.
“At the college level, you’ve always gotta go to that third move. You can’t expect to win off the first move. Those guys are being coaches as well as we’re getting coached. You can’t ever expect to win on the first move, so you’ve always gotta have something in your box.”
Kancey said that his level of success is largely borne out of his ability to react. There is no favorite move. Kancey studies enough film to be able to recognize and target the tendencies of the offensive linemen he matches up against each week. The key is to have a plan of attack and react when push comes to shove.
It’s a strategy that has allowed Kancey to rack up 26 tackles (14 solo), 11 tackles for loss and four sacks this season. He’s even better at rushing opposing quarterbacks as he is defending the run. And Kradel is sure of one thing.
He’s going to make someone really happy on Sundays next season.