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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Calijah Kancey's Tactical Approach in the Trenches Spurs First-Round Selection

How Calijah Kancey, the 19th overall selection in the 2023 NFL Draft, turned an undersized knock into a strength, perfecting his technique and pass rush repertoire at the line of scrimmage. A glimpse into his cerebral approach on the gridiron.

Pitt Athletics
Pitt Athletics

There is a brief moment of stillness before the snap of the ball. Players stoically get into their stance at the line of scrimmage. Linemen are frozen and endless possibilities await. Then, an unpredictable and tactical game of chess ensues between the white lines as bodies collide. For Buccaneers' first-round pick Calijah Kancey, that split second is utter bliss.

Kancey beams with excitement as he strolls down a hallway in the AdventHealth Training Center. It is May and he is at a pivot point – removed from the accolades achieved at Pittsburgh and furiously working towards dominion at the NFL level. Rookie minicamp is in the rearview and training camp looms. Emotions from draft night are a distant memory and the next chapter has not been written. Anticipation builds for the future and as Kancey reclines in a small red chair, he peers into the past. In reminiscence on career-defining milestones, Kancey grins at the flashbacks.

It was third-and-nine. Pittsburgh commanded a 31-14 advantage over Rhode Island. Kancey lined up on the outside shoulder of the guard, itching with anticipation. The center snapped the ball; Kancey utilized a lethal cross-chop maneuver and flew by the guard untouched through the B-gap. The running back stepped up, and Kancey blasted him into the quarterback for a sack.

"I knew that was a quick-set type of guard and he favored shooting with his outside hand," Kancey said. "So, for me, my goal was to align loose, and I wanted to take one big, hard step into him and split his [mid-section] to make him think that I was going power. He was a guy that as soon as you engaged him, he lowered his head and would shoot his outside arm. I aligned loose and baited him like I was going power, he shot his outside arm and that was everything that I needed. I worked the move and then he was just stuck at the line."

For Kancey, his unadulterated love of his chosen sport began at the age of four, when he stepped on a football field for the first time. From that point on, the space between the hashes became his sanctuary. As reps increased over the years and football practice became a staple in his itinerary, the fetish, as he calls it, grew. Kancey daydreamed of football with every breath, envisioning one day playing under the prime-time lights. Football was more than an impassioned hobby to him, it was poetry in motion.

A Miami native, Kancey enrolled at inner-city powerhouse Miami Northwestern High School and started on varsity as a junior defensive lineman. That year, he posted 98 tackles, guiding the team to a 14-win season and the 2017 6A state championship. During his senior campaign, Kancey led Northwestern to a 10-5 record and a second-consecutive state title. He concluded his senior season with 110 tackles, garnering all-county and all-conference honors in 2018. Kancey became the No. 63 defensive tackle in the 2019 recruiting class and the No. 113 recruit in the state of Florida. He received several offers from Power 5 programs but developed a unique bond with Pittsburgh's defensive line coach and area recruiter, Charlie Partridge, and committed to play for Head Coach Pat Narduzzi and the gritty Panthers.

"He never said this directly to me until it came out publicly, but part of the bond we developed was that I told him right out of the gate that I had no doubts," Partridge recalled. "There were a lot of schools that were making a big deal about his size, but I did not have any reservations. When I saw him on film, I knew he was a smaller guy, but I thought, 'Man is he dynamic.' When we got him in person and I saw all of the different things that we look at – shoulders, wrist, body frame, etc. - I knew he could be in the 280s and that was a fit for our system. I told him, 'There is no hesitation with me.' I did have the advantage of being the area recruiter and the position coach. So, I was born and raised in South Florida, and I coached his position. So thankfully for me, that stood out. I was not an area coach trying to sell him to the position coach. I came in and I knew, so I told him, 'I don't like your film. I love your film.' I think that carried some weight with him."

Partridge coaching shot_

Kancey redshirted his first year at Pitt, as he underwent a body transformation. He arrived at 250 pounds and morphed into a 280-pound menace, building strength. During that developmental process of waiting, Kancey emphasized what he could control - mental fortitude. The cerebral approach Kancey had behind closed doors during that year cultivated growth and catapulted him forward. The coaching staff quickly realized that Kancey was an anomaly and made him the focal point of pressure packages in Pitt's defense. Kancey was thrust into a variety of different roles in Narduzzi's 4-3 base scheme to maximize his ability to wreak havoc, lining up everywhere from nose tackle to the five-technique. He set the tone with a relentless motor and first-step quickness off the snap, terrorizing the pocket.

"You knew his time was coming the year he redshirted because he managed it so well even though he was frustrated like every kid in that situation," Partridge commented. "It wasn't long after he walked in the door, and I was hearing stories of how he was nearly unblockable by the scout team. You knew that he was going to be 'that guy' because of his gifts and work ethic to learn packages, that he would be a guy we featured. It was within a year of him being on campus that we knew he was going to be different from the majority.

"He was so twitchy and so quick. Calijah has the best quickness, get off, and power from that quickness and speed that I have coached. Take that for what it is worth. J.J. [Watt] is a great player and I have been fortunate to coach many great players including Trey Flowers, Trey Hendrickson, and the ability to be around those caliber players. This guy has the best pure interior quickness that I have ever coached. He is different and he has handled it all so well, too. He has never been on a list and has never created a distraction where I had to worry about anything off-the-field with him. We just developed."

A three-year starter at Pittsburgh, Kancey made his mark in 2021, accumulating 13.0 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks, one forced fumble and a pass defensed. He continued to emerge in 2022, solidifying his first-round draft status. Kancey led all FBS defensive tackles in tackles for loss (14.5), with 46.8 percent of his tackles coming in enemy territory, and became the program's first unanimous All-American since Aaron Donald. He also received ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors for his contributions in the trenches. Kancey had the most pressures for an interior defensive lineman, with 13 more than second place out of Power 5 schools. He continuously found angles to exploit in a forward-charging assault. With elite explosiveness off the snap, short-area quickness, exceptional awareness, and violent hands, Kancey carved out his niche as a well-rounded athlete, dominating as both a pass rusher and as a run defender. Perhaps the most alluring trait of them all – urgency. Kancey has the rare discernment in-game to not only attack but react amidst the chaos to counters and alignments.

"Going into Monday, around 10 a.m. I would watch film on the upcoming team that we were playing," Kancey described. "I wanted to watch both guards and the center and then I wanted to watch first and second string because someone could get hurt. Those were the guys that I would be going against 80percent, 90 percent of the game. I wanted to get a feel for the guys and to see if they had any tendencies. I would see if the opponent was a low-hand puncher or a high-handed puncher. 'Does he finish blocks? Does he like to lean when it is about to be a run? Does he sit back on his heels when it is about to be a pass?' I just tried to pick up those things and then I would look at what he would get beat with, what he would not let guys beat him with and I just broke it down. Then, I would write it down. On Tuesday, I would let the scout team know, 'Ok, this guy does this, and we need to see this in practice.' So, the whole week I was going through what the guys do in a game, but I was also getting the reps in practice. So, that by the time the game arrived, I was ready to react and go make a play."

Some players fire off the ball aimlessly with a sack tally in mind, but Kancey rushes with purpose. He has calculated a specified and elaborate plan to beat the person staring at him across the line of scrimmage. Kancey has an insatiable hunger for quarterbacks and that mindset has fostered stellar production. He has a cultivated feel for when to use certain moves and how to bait guards by using previous moves to his advantage on the next. Kancey's move-to-move transitions are timely and destructive. Extensive film study and dexterity sparked his ascension, allowing him to play fast. With a refined pass rush arsenal, he became an imposing force. Week-to-week, he created an unrivaled toolset of moves and was ready to unleash it at any given second. Kancey never attacks in the same way, keeping the opposition guessing.

Kancey pic 2

"He can alternate from a speed move - which he has various ones - to a power move, to a designed or a check-two gain, and he can use those to complement the other," Partridge assessed. "For example, the cross-chop has become very in vogue, and he is very good at it, but he is not going to cross-chop 75 times a game. He may beat you with a cross-chop, but he is going to use that to set up a fake-cross chop to power, to where he is going to use that three plays down the road to set up the guy coming in next to him and he will wrap around. That is hard to get kids to really understand and to even track within a game, 'Ok, what did I do the last time I pass rushed this guy?' He got more than proficient in that."

Preparation breeds success and Kancey is the personification of that sentiment. On Saturdays, centers could hardly get their head up after the snap before Kancey was there disrupting. He was a bull in a China shop. For every successful rep, an endless amount of work led to that climactic event, whether it was a check Kancey made or a protection he anticipated coming. The self-motivated phenom initiated one-on-one meetings on Wednesday evenings with Coach Partridge for an instructional and detailed overview of each week's rush plan. The result paid dividends on the gridiron and emboldened him.

"Tuesday nights, as a staff we gameplan for third downs," Partridge explained. "We presented it to the kids on Wednesday morning, installed it and would practice it. Then, Calijah would come back in, and it became a regular meeting with me one-on-one on Wednesday nights to put together his gameplan within the gameplan. 'Coach, why did you guys select this, this and this? What protections are we expecting? OK, so if I see this or that then I can expect this or that.' I got a lot of joy during the process leading up to the draft and they would show some highlights, and, in my head, I was thinking, 'There is more to that play than just the highlight that the fan is seeing.' In those Wednesday night one-on-one meetings that he wanted to have to make sure he put his gameplan together, he learned how to prepare like a pro. It is in those moments to me that define what he has become."

Due to his small frame by NFL defensive linemen standards (6-foot-1, 281 pounds), Kancey has had to work twice as hard on technique at the point of attack in preparing for double teams. Because of Kancey's consistent penetration against single blocks, it was a matter of when not if he would draw attention on traps and combo blocks. Other interior defensive linemen who are larger in stature can still survive on plays without proper fundamentals. For Kancey, he must utilize flawless technique in order to achieve the proper leverage or he will be moved off his spot. Pad level is vital and Kancey has shifted what others perceive as a flaw into a strength. Rather than balloon up to fit the coveted "norm," Kancey spent countless hours honing in on perfecting his stance at the point to mitigate a surmised weakness.

"It was all about working on the stance," Kancey elaborated. "If you are leaning too hard in your stance, you will have a bad step. A lot of guys put their off hand and rest it on their knee, that makes your body tilt and could cause a bad step. Then also, just knowing what is coming your way. If you have the running back on the same side as you, you should be expecting a power double or a slip combo and if the running back is opposite of you, then you should be expecting an inside zone your way or something like that. So, if you dip back and he is away from you, then you should be expecting a trap. It is all a plus and a minus. Your stance definitely reflects on what demeanor you are getting from the offense. If it is a third down and you know that it is a pass, you don't want to hide your feet. Your feet should be equal in a wide base. You want to get staggered and get in a loose stance so there is a lot that plays into it."

Despite the exorbitant number of hours and effort put in, the question marks persisted during the pre-draft process. When Kancey skipped his senior season to enter the 2023 NFL Draft, he immediately became one of the most polarizing players in the class. As NFL mock drafts monopolized headlines and pundits began the annual evaluation chatter, the "undersized" narrative became synonymously linked to Kancey.

Too small.

Cannot hold up at the point.

His arms are too short (sub 74-inch wingspan).

Will get bullied off his rush path.

Faulty anchor.

Those are the same weaknesses used to describe future first-ballot Hall of Famer and transcendent defender Aaron Donald in 2014. Donald has cemented his legacy as one of the most impactful players in the history of the game. Although it is unfair to compare Kancey, who has never played a down of football as a pro, to one of the all-time greats, the parallels are encouraging. Kancey was built in the same blue-collar mold at Pittsburgh. For the Buccaneers, the intangibles and tantalizing athletic traits outweighed the undersized knock.

"Right out of the gate, his get off, and the level of toughness and competitiveness – all of the things for me in my evaluation of Calijah were at a very high level," said Cesar Rivera, the Bucs' northeast region college scout. "A lot of times you get players who have one, maybe two or three of those but to get like four or five of them at a high level, he jumped off the tape. I remember being there in the summer, probably the second week of August last year, and watching him in practice doing one-on-one pass rush drills and he was unblockable. He was on a totally different level than everyone else. It was almost like before the play started, everybody knew what was going to happen and they still could not stop him. He is just so savvy with his rush moves. I remember sitting there right, and each one of those periods (10, 15) goes by. He was up next to go again, and the whistle blew for the end of the period, and I remember being disappointed that I didn't get to see him do another rep. He was just so entertaining."

The year-long scouting process leading into draft night is strenuous. It is often a thankless job but one that vastly affects the future of every NFL franchise. For the Buccaneers, the staff meets annually three times: in December, February and again in April. The December week-long deliberation is strictly on character. The staff and front office sit, go over the board and discuss a variety of topics including what drives the player, how he has responded to adversity, and does he love football? In February, after more exposure on prospects occur, the skill discussions commence. The group outlines strengths, weaknesses and pinpoints where on the board each player should fall. Lastly in April, the final meeting takes place after the Combine, Pro Days and 30 visits have concluded. A firm understanding is grasped of each prospect and conclusive thoughts are vocalized. In the case of Calijah Kancey, he checked the necessary boxes and then some. He ran a 4.67 40-yard dash, the fastest by a defensive tackle since 2003, which left onlookers salivating and affirmed what Tampa Bay already knew to be true.

"It is always great to see something on tape and then they go test at the Combine and it supports it," Rivera stated. "He is just so fast and so tough to block. Visually, I can see it now, it's third-and-one, we need to make a stop and they are going to try and run the ball off tackle. He is going to be so quick off the ball that they are not going to even be able to land a hand on him and he is going to make a tackle for loss. I already see that with this kid. He is just a playmaker. He is tough, he is competitive and everything we are trying to build around. That was the thing when I had to present who this kid is – my take and my reason for why this kid should be a Buccaneer – it was, 'This kid exemplifies everything that we talk about that we want in a player on and off the field.'

"During the process, I talked to a lot of Pitt defensive players, and I would always ask them about Calijah, and I would say, 'Tell me about your teammate Calijah.' That is when you get a really good understanding of what these guys mean to their team. It was always glowing reviews. It was, 'He is the toughest.' It was always, 'He is one of the hardest working.' One of the things I got from one of the coaches was, 'As good of a player he is, he is a better worker. As good of a worker he is, he is an even better person.' So, when you hear things like that, it is what you want. But when you talk to more people and they confirm it over and over and over again and then you get to talk to him and you see it too, it is reassuring and makes you feel confident going into those meetings to say, 'Hey Jason Licht' or 'Hey John Spytek, this is what this kid is about, and this is who he is.' To me, it all goes back to pride. He is a prideful kid, and he is passionate. I am a firm believer that in the way that you do one thing, is the way that you do everything. I think Calijah exemplifies that: prideful, hardworking, good-natured and a good teammate. He is exemplary in a lot of areas."

On April 27, the Buccaneers landed their wish-list prospect with the 19th overall pick, sending Kancey to Tampa Bay. In Todd Bowles' attack-styled system, Kancey will bring another dimension with his quickness. He is adept at driving blockers back with proper leverage and contact balance. Kancey has a limitless ceiling, dictating rushes with explosion. As he acclimates to the NFL, Kancey will fine-tune his craft. He has the potential to become a franchise cornerstone that offensive coordinators are forced to create blocking schemes around.

Introductory presser shot

Towering over his small red chair, Kancey shuffles in his seat. He is anchored by the work it took to reach the NFL's doorstep. Rather than basking in the destination he conjured up in his mind numerous times, he is enraptured by the mental chess match in the trenches. As he chronicles his evaluation process pre-snap at the line of scrimmage, Kancey lights up, personifying the awestruck wonder of that four-year-old little boy.

"Now that I have the call and I know the down-and-distance and the formation, I am keying my guy on near-knee, near-shoulder," he said. "I am processing, 'Ok, if he gives me this, if he gives me a low hand and it is third-and-eight, I am going to go do this. Or, if it is second-and-three, or if it is first-and-ten, I am going to react this way. Or, if it is third-and-ten, then I am going to align loose. If he is light on his stance, then it is pass.' I break it down and I find what I want to attack so if he is a two-step kick, outside hand-puncher, then I will align loose and make him kick to me. Then once he gets that outside hand, I am going to react. If he is a guy that likes to be head over heels and launch, then I am definitely going to go inside or give him a shake-power move.

"That's the best part, just going against a guy that is twice your size and dominating him. It is almost like winning a scratch-off or hitting the lottery. I have never won the lottery, but I know that feeling when I beat the person across from me. For me to go and watch film and break down the tape of someone, then to get into the game and actually see what I prepared for happen, it is very exciting. I love that feeling."

Kancey practice shot

Come fall, when football takes center stage, Kancey will step onto the field donning No. 94 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As he places his hand in the dirt and skillfully assesses his opponent as time stands still, a new era will dawn.

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