If you’ve been paying attention to the 2023 NFL Draft, you’ve heard of Pittsburgh defensive tackle Calijah Kancey.
The 2022 ACC Defensive Player of the Year and a two-time first-team All-ACC, Kancey had 14.5 sacks and 27.5 tackles for a loss in his last two seasons with the Panthers. He’s been the center of plenty of draft debates, especially in recent months. Though undersized, he ran the fastest 40-yard dash of any interior defensive lineman at the Combine since 2003, and his tape speaks for itself. Now, he’s looking at a likely first-round selection at the end of April.
Kancey spoke with Windy City Gridiron about his accomplished collegiate career, the popular comparisons to Aaron Donald, and much more.
JI: You finished this year as the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and an unanimous All-American. What did those awards mean to you?
CK: Becoming the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and achieving all those awards, that means everything to me, I’m honored to be one of many [winners]. The ACC is a great, a great conference with a lot of great defensive players, and for me to be the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, man, I’m honored. I don’t even know what to say about that. I definitely want to thank my teammates, and my coaches for just pushing me every day.
JI: You dominated in the Combine, and just in general, your athleticism is tremendous for your size. What goes into maintaining that weight without sacrificing your elite quickness?
CK: Honestly, I want to say just playing with good leverage, playing violent, and just playing fast. I feel like that’s something that, as an undersized defensive tackle, I have to do; I have to be consistent, and I got to play with good leverage. With this game of football, you don’t play the game of football straight-legged, and then you don’t play the position in the trenches, which is the d-line and o-line, standing up. The lower man wins, and that’s something that I take very seriously.
JI: What would you say is your go-to technique to shed blocks?
CK: When I’m at a point of attack, I want to use the offensive lineman’s momentum against him. I want to feel his weight. Once I feel the weight shift, that’s when I know what move I want to like actually use against him. It’s nothing that I have predetermined. I’m just going based off of the weight shift of the offensive lineman.
JI: I read a quote from Pat Narduzzi that said you’re one of the finest people and players he’s ever coached. What does that mean to you, and can you speak to your relationship with him?
CK: I want to thank Coach Narduzzi. He’s a great coach. I had a fun time playing for him and just learn from him as a coach, and also as a mentor, a guy that loves his players and pushes his players to be great players, not just good players. I want to thank him for that. That quote means everything to me.
JI: I know the Aaron Donald comparisons have been done to death with you. How do you feel about them, and what others players have you modeled your game after over the years?
CK: Oh, it’s great to be compared to a guy like Aaron Donald. From the things he accomplished, it’s definitely great to be compared to him. But I’m Calijah Kancey, at the end of the day, and that’s who I’m going to make a name for. I want to say he’s a great guy, and I’m just going to be myself and not Aaron Donald. A lot of people tend to lean towards the two of us being Pitt guys, then being 6-foot-0, fast, and the film speaks for itself. At the end of the day, I’m Calijah Kancey.
JI: Do you remember the first time you and Aaron interacted?
CK: Yeah, the first time I ever talked to Aaron Donald was my freshman year. It was in the fall, and it was my freshman year, and I had I met him while I was lifting on Friday morning. I was lifting, and he snuck in, and he did a lift. I want to thank Coach Dave Andrews; he’s our old head strength and conditioning coach at Pitt. He introduced me to Aaron, and from that day on, we’ve been cool ever since.
JI: Like you said, you faced some really tough competition in the ACC. Who’s the toughest blocker you’ve faced?
CK: The toughest offensive lineman I’ve gone up against, I would say [is former NC State offensive lineman and current Carolina Panther Ikem Ekwonu]. I played against him my redshirt freshman year. He was a guard at the time, but I think he’s a tackle now.
JI: What made that matchup so challenging?
CK: Me as a defensive tackle, when I play against guys, I want to see where the guy’s head is at, how tough guys are, and as the game go on, guys like to come out very strong and aggressive in the first quarter and then just kind of die down. He was a guy that kept that same motor from the first quarter, and that was something that I liked about him as a player. He had a lot of fight in him. He wasn’t one of those guys that just act like they’re tough and get quiet as the game goes on. He was a guy that was great. He was bringing it every play.
JI: Does watching some of these guys you’ve faced in college succeed in the NFL boost your confidence in how you’ll do at the next level?
CK: Yes, that definitely gave me a lot of confidence. I want to say when I first started getting reps at the college level and I was on scout team, I was going against [All-ACC] center Jimmy Morrissey every day. That was something that built my confidence right then and there, when I knew I could play at this level, because I was going against the [All-ACC] center every day in practice. It was me going out there and putting it on tape versus different opponents, but that was something that I built my confidence during practice.
JI: How do you spend your free time outside of football?
CK: In my free time outside of football, I cook and play video games.
JI: What’s your go-to in the kitchen?
CK: Honestly, I like to grill, so I don’t know if that’s a main part of cooking, but I’m more of a grill type of guy.
JI: Are you an Xbox, PlayStation or PC guy?
CK: I’m PlayStation all the way.
JI: Have you been a PlayStation guy your whole life? I know some people switch at different points.
CK: I was kind of back and forth with Xbox. When I was like, I want to say third grade, fourth grade, I made that switch to PlayStation. I want to say I was better at [it], and it was easier to operate.
JI: Let’s say I’m an NFL general manager. What would I be getting if I drafted you to my team?
CK: If you’re an NFL general manager, drafting me, you will be getting a guy that plays with a motor, that’s a guy that you could depend on, a guy that doesn’t have any off-the-field issues, and a guy who everyone loves, besides opposing quarterbacks.
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