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2023 NFL Draft prospect profile - Calijah Kancey, iDL, Pittsburgh

Can Kancey come close to replicating Aaron Donald’s impact on the NFL?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 12 Pitt at Virginia Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The draft community loves to compare prospects to NFL players to help fans understand who the prospects are and the type of player they might become.

The most unavoidable comparison in the entire 2023 NFL Draft is between Pittsburgh defensive tackle Calijah Kancey and Aaron Donald. Not only are both Pitt alums, but they’re undersized yet explosively athletic and disruptive defensive linemen. It would seem silly to compare Kancey to one of the most dominant defensive players in recent memory.

But like Donald, Kancey is far from a traditional defensive tackle prospect, and the perennial All Pro could help his future team plot a course for his development.

Kancey will need to be in an aggressive defense that puts him into position to attack into the backfield. As it so happens, Wink Martindale’s defense is built on attacking the offense. Could the New York Giants be an ideal landing spot for Kancey — if he even falls that far?

Prospect: Calijah Kancey (8)
Games Watched: vs. Tennessee (2021), vs. Wake Forest (2021), vs. West Virginia (2022), vs. Tennessee (2022)


Courtesy Kent Lee Platte (@mathbomb) |

Career Stats

Games Played: 33
Tackles: 91
Tackles for a loss: 34.5
Sacks: 16.0
Forced fumbles: 1
Passes defensed: 3


Games Played: 11
Tackles: 39
Tackles for a loss: 14.5
Sacks: 7.5
Forced fumbles: 0
Passes defensed: 0

Quick Summary

Best: Explosiveness, speed, agility, quickness, pass rush
Worst: Size, run defense, length
Projection: A starting defensive lineman in a 1-gap defense.

Game Tape

Full Report

Pittsburgh’s Calijah Kancey is a compact but exceptionally explosive defensive tackle prospect. Kancey is (very) undersized for an NFL defensive tackle, but compensates by bringing elite explosiveness, agility, quickness, and flexibility to the field.

Kancey played all over the Pittsburgh defensive line, playing every alignment from 0-technique nose tackle to 7-technique defensive end depending on the play-call and field position. He generally keys the snap well from any alignment, and consistently explodes off the line of scrimmage with little wasted energy. Kancey’s lower body flexibility allows him to keep a low pad level and he’s almost always the “low man”.

Between his natural leverage and his low pad level, Kancey routinely wins the initial leverage battle. He generates a lot of power with his lower body, which allows him to accelerate into the backfield and attack gaps before blockers are able to get into position to deal with him. Kancey also has impressive quickness and agility, which he uses to quickly shift rush paths and execute gap exchange stunts or to from playing head-up to seeking half-man leverage against a blocker. His lower-body flexibility and agility also allow him to turn a tight corner and even bend the edge as a pass rusher.

Kancey was well-coached at Pittsburgh and has a fairly diverse set of pass rush moves for a college prospect. He primarily defaults to a bull-rush move, which he pairs with club-swim. Kancey likes to use the bull-rush to take advantage of his explosiveness and leverage to get under blockers and get them on their heels. The club-swim, meanwhile, take advantage of his quickness and agility against blockers who over-set for his speed off the ball. That said, he also uses push-pull, rip, and spin moves on occasion as well. He shows evidence of knowing how to rush with a plan and set up his moves ahead of time.

Kancey has great competitive toughness and never shies away from taking on bigger blockers. Likewise, he plays with a wide-open motor and gives full effort in pursuit. Kancey quickly shifts from rush to pursuit, and his agility allows him to easily retrace and run down ball carriers. He’s able to make plays off of blockers in the run game, but is at his best when attacking individual gaps and disrupting behind the line of scrimmage.

While Kancey is able to minimize the role his size plays – and even use it as an asset when attacking into the backfield – it does negatively impact his game on occasion. He is pretty easily stymied by double-teams, and even loses ground to bigger individual blockers. Likewise, Kancey lacks mass relative to the blockers he’s playing against and can be washed out of running plays if they’re able to absorb his initial burst. He needs to be put in position to attack into the backfield, otherwise he can struggle. Kancey’s short arms are also occasionally a problem for him. His burst allows him to effectively attack blockers’ chest plates and win inside leverage, but he can also struggle to efficiently disengage if they’re able to lock in blocks of their own. He can appear to get “stuck” on blockers when he isn’t able to quickly defeat the blocker’s hands.

Overall Grade: 8.0


Calijah Kancey projects as a starting defensive tackle for a one-gap defense.

Kancey certainly won’t be for every team. His size is going to be a limiting factor in some schemes, particularly for defenses that rely on defensive linemen (and particularly tackles) to hold blockers. Kancey simply should not be asked to eat double-teams, unless as part of a stunt to open up a free run for a looping or blitzing teammate.

However, he has the potential to be an impact player if he lands in a defense that is willing to move him around the defensive line and attack individual gaps. Kancey is a truly elite athlete for the defensive tackle position, and the comparisons to Aaron Donald are inevitable. He isn’t that player yet, and he probably shouldn’t be expected to achieve Donald’s level of dominance. That said, Kancey has a high ceiling for an aggressive defense that’s willing to feature his explosive athleticism. He still has some work to do in refining his pass rush repertoire to more efficiently deliver that athleticism into the backfield, but he should produce headaches for offenses very early in his career.