Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah’s first day of BYU spring football in 2010 looked like the opening practice of a Pop Warner season.
Ansah — 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds at the time — put his shoulder pads on backward. He asked teammates how to put in thigh pads. He got into a frog stance on the defensive line.
“Dude literally didn’t know anything,” BYU special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga told The Chronicle-Telegram. “He was doing the leapfrog around the practice field. It was crazy, man.”
The clueless, hopping physical freak is expected to be a top-10 draft choice Thursday night as a defensive end/outside linebacker. He could go as high as No. 2 to Jacksonville and would be incredibly tempting for the Browns if he’s available at No. 6.
“The story of Ziggy is the most impressive thing I’ve seen in football. And I’ve been around it my whole, entire life,” Poppinga said. “It’s unbelievable.”
“Obviously it’s a blessing,” Ansah said at the scouting combine. “It’s really humbling. I’m really privileged to be out here and I’m really grateful for the opportunity I have. I thank Heavenly Father for giving me my athletic abilities that I have. I just have to use it right.”
Ansah grew up in Ghana as a Mormon and enrolled at BYU with the hopes of playing basketball. He was cut twice, then tried track — he ran the 200 in 21 seconds — before watching a football practice in 2009. He had never played the sport.
“He was really shy, really timid,” Poppinga said. “He was just looking at things like, ‘What are these guys doing?’”
Ansah joined the team in 2010, but even when he figured out how to get dressed, he didn’t resemble a future first-round pick. The coaches didn’t know if he could change direction, so they put him on the defensive line.
“He grew up in Ghana playing basketball and soccer. There’s not a lot of toughness involved there,” Poppinga said. “He’d do the old soccer flop on the ground whenever he’d get hit. He’d never been hit before. But over time, he got tough.”
Ansah switched to outside linebacker in 2011 but had no starts and a total of 10 tackles before 2012. He returned to the line and started nine of 13 games with 62 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, eight quarterback pressures and nine batted passes.
“It was frustrating in the beginning,” Ansah said. “I wasn’t treated like Ziggy hasn’t played football at all. They were pushing me like I was playing football for 25 years. It was crazy. But it’s been easier now.”
“From spring of 2012 to fall camp to the end of December, we really pushed him hard to make sure he was tough,” Poppinga said. “After the spring, we knew he would get drafted.”
But no one would’ve believed in the first round, let alone the first 10 picks. Poppinga said NFL scouts thought they had a hidden gem and asked BYU coaches not to tell anyone else.
“They thought he would be a secret,” Poppinga said.
With the help of a dominant Senior Bowl — seven tackles, including 3½ for loss and 1½ sacks, and a forced fumble — Ansah went from under the radar to smack-dab it he middle of it. Senior Bowl executive director and former Browns general manager Phil Savage thinks he’s the best player in the draft.
“There are certainly safer picks in the top five, but as far as pure ability, this guy has top-five talent in this draft,” he said. “He has rare ability and freakish qualities.”
Ansah is 6-5, 271 pounds. He ran a 4.56-second 40-yard dash and had a vertical leap of 34½ inches.
“His upside is out the freaking roof,” Poppinga said. “There’s still tons of things he can learn — gaps, different defenses. You can draft the dude just off potential.
“The kid’s a hard worker. He loves to learn, loves to work.”
Poppinga said it took two years for Ansah to begin to figure out the game, and his singular year of success is a red flag for some teams who feel Ansah is too raw to go in the top 10.
Another question is where he fits. Savage believes he should be a defensive end, so he won’t have to worry about dropping in coverage. Poppinga likes him as a 3-4 outside linebacker. The Browns are looking for the latter, and general manager Michael Lombardi said Ansah’s good enough to play either position.
The key to his success, in either scheme, will be the ability to consistently rush the passer.
“The speed rush is probably his best thing,” Poppinga said. “And his bull rush off the edge is really good. He has real great explosion and he has great leverage with long arms.”
Ansah, 23, admits he has a long way to go and plenty left to learn.
“In comparison to other people that are out there and I have been playing only a few years, I still have a lot to do just to catch up to them,” he said. “I’m gonna put everything I got to do my best.”
That includes late-night viewing of the NFL Network for educational purposes.
“I see some things, I have no idea who they are,” he said. “This is going to be my life, so I just try to suck it all in.”
He shouldn’t have much trouble learning the history of the game. He already proved to be a quick study on the field.
“Now, you’d think he’d been playing football 10, 15 years,” Poppinga said. “He picks up things very fast.
“He’s a special kid who’s been put in a special situation.”
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