Calijah Kancey needed just one arm to claim the ACC Defensive Player of the Year trophy this weekend in Charlotte — fitting considering his other arm was in a sling.
He’s not playing in Pitt’s bowl game due to injury, his superb junior season now over, but he’s also not voiced his intention on a next step. He can return to Pitt for his senior season or make the jump to the NFL.
It’s highly likely that Kancey has concluded his Pitt career, and while he’s been touted as a top defensive line prospect in the 2023 NFL Draft, his common status as a Day 1 or 2 pick isn’t universally shared.
Pro Football Network’s Tony Pauline, who wrote that he’s heard Kancey is 50/50 on returning to Pitt next season, currently evaluates Kancey as a Day 3 draft pick.
“I’m not as high on him as some of the people I’ve spoken with,” Pauline told PSN Saturday. “He’s an undersized, three-technique tackle, and he’s a scheme-specific player in the sense that he’s not gonna fit every single scheme because of size limitations. Is he even gonna touch 6 feet on the measuring tape? So, what happens with those types of guys, their value goes down when it comes to the NFL Draft.”
Kancey is listed at 6-foot, 280 pounds, and it certainly hasn’t held him back in a brief Pitt career. In 33 games, Kancey has recorded 91 tackles (52 solo), 34.5 tackles for loss, 16 sacks, a forced fumble and three pass breakups.
That’s over a tackle for loss and more than half a sack per game, as an interior defensive lineman no less. It’s impressive production, and it’s garnered Nagurski and Outland Trophy finalist, All-American and conference player of the year honors.
But while Pauline said he thinks Kancey is very good at what he does, he doesn’t think the size limitations will go away.
“I’ve heard some guys tell me second round, somebody told me three or four weeks ago he’s a poor man’s version of Aaron Donald,” Pauline said. “He has been very productive the past two seasons, and someone I spoke with earlier today said, after he released that thing that he wasn’t gonna play because of the injury, they said his draft stock is never gonna be any higher because he’s not gonna grow three inches taller and be able to put on 30 pounds, which is very true.”
The Donald-Kancey comparison is obvious, considering the alma mater. But it goes way beyond just wearing the same jersey. Donald was listed at 6-foot, 285 as a senior at Pitt. Kancey is listed at 6-foot, 280 this season.
Kancey is the first Pitt defender to win ACC DPoY since Donald in 2013, and he can become the first Pitt defender since Donald to win the Nagurski and Outland Trophies later this year. Kancey hasn’t been quite as productive as Donald during his Pitt career, but Pat Narduzzi has said that when it comes to defensive linemen during his time at Pitt, Kancey is the clear No. 1.
When Pauline evaluates Kancey, however, he said his mind immediately jumps to former Iowa State defensive lineman James Reed.
Reed was a standout at Iowa State in the late 1990s before he was drafted by the New York Jets in the seventh round of the 2001 NFL Draft. Reed put together a seven-year career, racking up 230 tackles (162 solo), 19 tackles for loss, seven sacks, four fumble recoveries and four pass breakups.
He was listed at 6-foot, 286 pounds during his NFL career, and Pauline said he saw a similar level of explosion in an undersized frame. He also said that Kancey’s NFL fit would need to be in a four-man front that utilizes three technique defensive linemen.
“I have him as a fifth-round pick right now, there’s some people that have him as a second day pick,” Pauline said. “I don’t know that going back and having a great year will move him into the first round because of the fact that he has size limitations, and he’s gonna be limited in the type of schemes he can play.
“He’s gotta find a scheme to play in, he’s probably gonna be — from my point of view — a rotational guy and also gonna have to play on special teams.”
It’s one of the harshest evaluations of Kancey by a draftnik. Pro Football Focus’s most recent 2023 Big Board rated Kancey as the 45th prospect in the class. Kancey’s draft stock tends to hover around a second or third grade at this point, as opposed to the fifth round. But as Pauline said, he’s just one voice.
When it comes to Kancey’s jump to the next level, Pauline said that it comes down to what Kancey wants to do.
“If he really enjoys college football and enjoys college experience, and I don’t know where he is as far as educational concerned, it makes sense for him to go back,” Pauline said. “If he’s ready to move on with the next level of his career, then he should go to the draft. The NFL — the curve in every single way is so much steeper. Not just the earning curve, but the competition curve, the conditioning curve, everything is so much steeper, and you gotta be able to handle it.”
Kancey, if he wanted to, could return for two more seasons at Pitt. He won’t, of course, but he’s already cemented his legacy as one of Pitt’s best defensive linemen in program history. The postseason accolades are very, very likely to follow in the weeks to come.
Pauline may not view Kancey as a top draft pick in 2023, but his body of work is undeniable.