Calijah Kancey Ready to Prove Undersized Defensive Tackles Can Thrive in NFL
INDIANAPOLIS — Calijah Kancey has heard it all before. If it wasn’t as he was coming out of Northwestern High in Miami, it’s now as he’s coming out of Pitt.
You know, the talk that he’s way too short, too undersized to play defensive tackle in the NFL. He doesn’t see it that way, of course. But it’s never been about proving anyone wrong.
“I just kinda prove myself right,” Kancey said Tuesday at the NFL Combine. “I don’t play to prove anyone else wrong; I just prove myself right.”
As Pitt’s first unanimous All-American since a little defensive lineman named Aaron Donald in 2013, he’s done it all at the collegiate level. He’s proved he’s good enough. And he may not be looking to prove anyone else wrong, but the NFL has taken notice.
The NFL draft analysts have taken notice, too, consistently mocking him as a first round selection — ranked at a near-consensus Top-50 recruit in the 2023 NFL Draft.
As he stood at a podium deep inside the Indiana Convention Center Tuesday, with dozens and dozens of reporters clamoring for his attention, he faced the crowd from atop the stage. He was the tallest in the room for a time. But even then, he’s never been one to shy away from his stature.
“That’s always in the back of my head,” Kancey said. “I know that I’m a smaller guy, and I gotta come with it. I can’t high step.”
Kancey watches a player like Donald, of course, but he spends time watching film on guys like Falcons lineman Jarrett Grady, Eagles lineman Javon Hargrave and Jets lineman Quinnen Williams. It’s important to see how those who preceded him have gotten to where they are today.
“I think those guys just paved the way for smaller defensive tackles, and they just showed people why smaller defensive tackles can play at the next level,” Kancey said. “A lot of speed, quickness, technique, and a lot of good block shedding and aggressiveness.”
As an undersized defensive lineman, Kancey knows he won’t be able to rely on brute strength to bull-rush opposing offensive linemen. He’s well aware he isn’t afforded the opportunity to be complacent in neglecting his craft. So, of course, he’s never allowed himself to get complacent during his journey to the top.
It helps to have a defensive line coach like Charlie Partridge, who will pick up the phone to give advice if Kancey calls at any hour of the day, but it’s been a lot of hard work. He’s quick off the line, and he uses that to his advantage and finds a way to get as low as he can — a smaller stature isn’t always a disadvantage when attacking offensive linemen.
“Just playing with great leverage,” Kancey said. “As a defensive tackle, lower man wins. You just gotta play with great leverage, great technique. With me being undersized, I can’t afford to have bad technique.”
Kancey has been training at the Frisco Texas Sports Academy lately, focusing on getting his shoulder right after a minor surgery following Pitt’s season, and after he was cleared three weeks, he was right back to his training regimen.
He gets a chance to show off the fruits of labor this week in Indianapolis, hitting the field at Lucas Oil Stadium for all sorts of measurements and drills. And if there’s one area he’s especially excited to showcase, it’s his speed.
“I’ll surprise everyone at my 40,” Kancey said. “Stay tuned.”
It’s early in the week, with team meetings beginning just Tuesday morning, but he’s held formal meetings with a number of NFL teams — too many to keep track of off the top of his head. Those meetings will only continue to stack up as the week progresses.
It’s an important week for Kancey, especially when it comes to officially measuring in and actually getting onto the field, but he’s been supported the entire way by his past and present Pitt teammates.
Kancey is rooming with Habakkuk Baldonado in Indianapolis, getting the chance to spend some time together after a few months apart, and he’s heard from teammates like Patrick Jones, Rashad Weaver, Jaylen Twyman, Dane Jackson and Damar Hamlin. And Kenny Pickett, of course.
“Kenny’s always supporting his Pitt guys, man,” Kancey said. “A great leader, a great captain, he sent me a text and told me good luck. And I appreciate that from Kenny.”
Pittsburgh is a city that Kancey has grown to love during his time as a Panther, appreciating the genuine connections he’s forged, the great people and maybe the even better food. He even needed to give the men’s basketball team a shoutout — as the Panthers prepare for a two-game stretch to clinch an ACC title.
“I’ve been watching,” Kancey said. “They’ve been showing out, man. I’ve been turnt watching them.
“I think Pitt’s doing a great thing. I wanna give a special shoutout to Pitt men’s basketball. They all stayed down, and now it’s all showing. They’re making it happen.”
Pitt basketball is looking to make it happen in South Bend Tuesday night, and Kancey himself is making it happen in Indianapolis. He just wants to be consistent, take every day just one at a time and show he’s an NFL defensive lineman. Not because he wants to prove anyone wrong, of course, but because he believes in himself.
“My playing weight was 275 pounds,” Kancey said. “I’m weighing 280 pounds right now, and I’m looking good.”