Calijah Kancey embracing Aaron Donald’s legacy at Pittsburgh

Sports

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi knows to tread carefully when invoking the name Aaron Donald.

Narduzzi’s doing it anyway when it comes to his defensive lineman Calijah Kancey. His play is giving him no choice.

Knifing through double teams, wrecking game plans and racking up 3 1/2 sacks — as Kancey did in a 37-7 win over Virginia last Saturday — will do that.

“I think everyone likes to think they have an Aaron Donald,” Narduzzi said of the Pitt alumnus turned NFL star. “But that guy (Kancey) truly is one of those guys. He’s hard to block.”

At 6 feet tall and a lean 280 pounds, Kancey is dominating at a position where if you’re not going to have height, you better have width. Kancey has neither.

And yet on Wednesday he was named a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Award given to the top defensive player in college football.

Kancey is likely to hear his name called early in the NFL draft. If he does, he’ll join an increasing list of linemen who arrived at the training facility the Panthers share with the Pittsburgh Steelers as largely unheralded raw material and left with an NFL job.

That’s heady territory for a South Florida kid whose youth coach told him he was too big to be a running back like his idol, Clinton Portis.

Why don’t you try lineman, his coach said.

A decade later, that same kid who outgrew the chance to run the ball looks too small to stop it.

And yet Kancey succeeds with startling regularity, something that became obvious to former Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett shortly after Kancey joined the Panthers in 2019.

“I was like, ‘OK, he’s going to be a problem,'” said Pickett, now a rookie quarterback with the Steelers. “I’ve seen him chase some guys down that you know, D-tackles don’t normally chase down.”

Kancey’s explosiveness at the snap makes it difficult for bigger, slower offensive linemen to push him around.

“It all comes with having a plan,” Kancey said. “Like, if (an opponent) does this, what’s your counter? It’s just always having an answer for what the offensive linemen is doing.”

It’s not unusual for the 6-1, 285-pound Donald to stop by the performance center that bears his name at his alma mater and get in a workout during the offseason. More than once Kancey has found Donald honing his craft on the other side of the weight room.

And yeah, Kancey admits he was initially “shocked” at how much smaller Donald is in person than he looks on TV. But it’s not like that stopped Donald from winning every major award for a defensive lineman during his last season at Pitt in 2013.

While Kancey hasn’t made any sort of declaration about his intentions next year — he said he’s more focused on making sure Pitt (6-4, 3-3 ACC) finishes the season with a flourish — Pickett has little doubt his former teammate will thrive whenever he lands in an NFL locker room.

“I’m sure in the draft process everyone will talk about size and everything,” Pickett said. “He’ll gain some size but I think his speed, his strength, his quickness, all that stuff. He’s a really tough player.”

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