Still learning the game, Lions rookie DE Ziggy Ansah is on fast track
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The transition from the college game to the NFL began hours after Ziggy Ansah was selected by the Detroit Lions with the fifth overall pick in last April's draft. It started with a phone call from the leader of the Lions' defensive line, Ndamukong Suh. "You've got some big expectations," Suh told Ansah, who has only been playing football for three years. "But I'm here to help you."
The two agreed to meet as soon as Ansah got to Detroit. Prior to the draft Suh had begged Lions GM Martin Mayhew to tell him which defensive players the team was eyeing. Suh found out that Ansah was one of a handful in the mix, so Suh started reading up on Ansah and watching film.
"I liked the way he played," Suh said. "Plus, I knew he was African. So there was a connection there and I knew we'd get along. I wanted to get him out on the streets to see what Detroit was like."
After Ansah arrived in town, the entire defensive line took him out for dinner to celebrate his birthday. A few nights later Suh made arrangements for the linemen to watch a Tigers game from pitcher Justin Verlander's private suite. It was Ansah's first time seeing a Major League Baseball game. "The food in the suite was great," Ansah said. "The game was pretty good, too."
Suh even arranged rides for Ansah since he doesn't have a car.
"The best lines I've played on from college to the pros were the ones where the guys all hung out on and off the field," Suh said. "We had a bond. We had each other's back. We hung around each other and knew we could rely on each other."
Ansah wasn't expecting such hospitality and camaraderie. "I thought I'd be on my own as a rookie," Ansah said. "I wasn't expecting Suh to get so close to me and to try and help me out. But he's been like a big brother to me. Whenever I have any questions I just go to him and he helps me out. I just love the unity on the defensive line."
Another player who has had a big influence on Ansah is 32-year-old defensive end Israel Idonije. A native of Nigeria, Idonije has a story similar to Ansah's. Idonije didn't start playing football until his senior year of high school in Canada. He played in the Canadian Football League before spending nine seasons with the Chicago Bears. The Lions signed him over the summer and he instantly bonded with Ansah.
"This is a brotherhood," Idonije said. "The guys who come in and accept the culture will be accepted and nurtured by the other guys. We want to help a guy who buys into the system. That's what Ziggy has done."
A big part of buying into the system is performing on the field. That entails displaying toughness and learning a whole new system. Playing defensive end, Ansah passed the toughness test during one of the first 11-on-11 sessions in training camp. He and Suh got tangled up while rushing the quarterback. Suh mistook Ansah for an offensive lineman and delivered a ferocious forearm shiver that flattened Ansah.
"I tested him by accident," Suh said. "He got knocked to the ground and he just popped back up and was ready for the next play. He definitely has some dog in him. He's not afraid to stick his head in the pile."
Ansah, who makes his professional debut in a preseason game against the Jets on Friday, laughed about the play afterward. "Suh is an intense guy," Ansah said. "I'm just trying to play as hard and as strong as he does."
That kind of attitude has endeared him to his new teammates.
"Veterans love a young guy who comes in and is willing to work," Idonije said. "Ziggy is a humble guy. I know a lot of talented guys with all the ability in the world, but at the end of the day it's the talented guys who are humble and coachable that go a long way. The guy with talent who thinks he has all the answers isn't going to go far."
Defensive line coach Kris Kocurek has taken an unconventional coach in his approach with Ansah. "He can really run and has unbelievable instincts," Kocurek said. "He finds the football. The last thing we want to do with a guy like him is slow him down. So we basically coach him backwards."
In other words, don't do anything to screw up his natural ability to get to the quarterback.
"As time goes by, with reps and practice and preseason games we'll correct the technique errors," Kocurek said. "We'll work on that. But we need him to go fast. We told Ziggy: 'We want you going as hard and as fast as you can. If you hesitate then you are making a mistake.'"
Speed is the biggest reason the Lions drafted Ansah. At the NFL combine he ran the 40 in 4.62 seconds. Since joining the Lions he's been living in the weight room and following a simple diet — no leafy greens. He's gained 10 pounds to get up to 285. When asked if the added weight has slowed him down, Ansah grins: "The speed is still the same."
At the same time, Lions coaches have been impressed with how quickly Ansah has learned the system. "As freakish as he is athletically," Kocurek said, "he's just as smart. He's one of the fastest learners I've ever been around."
One of Ansah's teammates refers to him as a "sponge" who absorbs everything he hears. That's pretty close to the truth. In fact, Ansah has a gift that didn't surface at the NFL Combine or in any pre-draft report. Call it total recall. His ability to remember what he hears is akin to a photographic memory.
"I can remember the exact words that people say," Ansah said. "It's a gift that I have. When I hear something for the first time I will repeat it in my head. I learn it faster that way. So I only need to hear something one time and then I know it. It is like repetition, only mentally."
Ansah sat on the training table inside the Lions' practice facility on a Sunday morning in late July. Training camp had been underway for a few days, but this was the first day in pads. On his right arm, the rookie defensive end wore a wristband containing a cheat sheet listing the defensive plays: "Swim Easy", "Four Outlaw Easy" and "30 Snag".
The trainer worked on his right wrist, taping it for support.
"I can't believe I'm doing this," Ansah said. "I pinch myself every day. I get paid to play. It's something I can't really comprehend."
It is a bit mindboggling. In May, he signed a four-year, $18.6 million contract that included an $11.9 million signing bonus. Pretty stunning numbers considering that up until a few years ago Ansah had never heard of football, much less played it.
Ansah, 24, grew up in Ghana and came to the U.S. to study statistics at BYU. The first time he saw a college football game he came away wondering why anyone would want to play such a violent sport. Two years later he walked on BYU's team. The equipment manager had to show him how to put on his shoulder pads. He literally had no clue.
But Ansah possessed rare physical gifts. At 6-foot-5, 275 pounds he had sprinter's speed and a 39-inch vertical leap. With that kind of athleticism, he developed into a pass-rushing specialist coming off the edge. Last season he shot up NFL draft boards after becoming a starter partway through the season, finishing with 62 tackles, including 13 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Then he shined at the Senior Bowl.
Still, he is no doubt the most inexperienced player in any NFL training camp this year. Maybe ever.
"For a guy to go from not knowing how to strap on his shoulder pads to being the fifth pick in the NFL draft just doesn't happen," said Kocurek. "I've never seen anything like it. Especially in the position he plays. Ziggy is out there taking on 300-pound men."
The man most responsible for choosing Ansah over other more proven players in this year's draft is Mayhew, the Lions' GM.
"He can have a really big role for us," Mayhew said during training camp last week. "As we thought, he's improving every day. We have to get back to being disruptive up front, getting turnovers and being more of a playmaking defense. And Ziggy can be a big part of that."
Ansah was a playmaker last season at BYU, but he's the first to admit that making plays in the NFL is another story. "It's like an all-star game every day," he said. "Everyone is big. Everyone is fast. Everyone is strong. It's very different than college."
All eyes were on the big rookie when he dropped into a three-point stance to participate in pass rushing drills for the first time. Lined up opposite a 300-pound offensive tackle, Ansah's objective was to get past the blocker as quickly as possible and reach a pop-up dummy that represented a quarterback. Before taking his turn, Ansah had watched the veterans use a bull rush to power their way to the dummy. On the snap of the ball, Ansah resorted to instincts, exploding out of his stance and racing around the tackle's left shoulder. Untouched, he pummeled the pop-up dummy. It happened so fast that it looked like a false start. All the left tackle could do was let rip a few expletives.
Then Ansah received some instruction from a coach who showed him how to shave a tenth of a second off his pass rush by tightening his angle just a hair. Ansah nodded. It's those two things -- his instincts and his willingness to be coached -- that has the Lions' brass smiling.
"He doesn't take anything for granted when it comes to the game of football and what it can provide for you," said Lions' head coach Jim Schwartz. "Don't underestimate the 'new to the game of football' routine. He plays that to his advantage. Ziggy can hang with the guys in this league."
Toward the end of the first week of training camp, Ansah walked off the practice field past Al "Bubba" Baker, who was surrounded by a throng of reporters. Baker wore a yellow cotton shirt and denim blue shorts and still looked imposing at 6-6. As Ansah walked past, Baker stepped away from the reporters.
"Ziggy, I just want to shake your hand and say hello," Baker said.
Ansah shook his hand and said hello.
"I played here," the man said. "What were you doing in 1978?"
Ansah laughed. "I wasn't even in the womb."
Baker cracked up. "I'll see you inside."
Ansah headed for the locker room. A friend pulled him aside and asked, "Do you know who that guy is?"
"No," Ansah said.
Ansah's friend filled him in. As a rookie in 1978, Baker led the Lions with 23 sacks, including five in one game. He was named Defensive Rookie of the Year and went on to record 131 career sacks. He was the leader of Detroit's famous "Silver Rush."
"Oh, wow," Ansah said. "I need to talk to him."
A short while later, Baker caught up with Ansah in the locker room. Baker demonstrated a few tricks of the trade. Then he told Ansah a story about his rookie season training camp under coach Floyd Peters. "He said, 'Look, kid, I just want to see you getting up off the quarterback,'" Baker recalled. "'That's all I care about.'"
"He didn't give me a lot to learn," Baker continued. "He gave me one thing to do. Get the quarterback. So I wasn't confused. I had no reservations. I clearly knew what they wanted me to do and why they brought me here."
Then Baker put up his index finger and held it front of Ansah's eyes. "You only have to master one thing," Baker said. "Rushing the quarterback. Don't get confused. Don't over analyze. There's such a thing as paralysis by analysis. They want you to get the quarterback. That's it."
Ansah thanked him.
"Trust your instincts," Baker said.
The Lions plan to use Ansah as a defensive end on the right side. Baker agrees that's the ideal place for him. "The guy on the right side is the catalyst," Baker said. "The quarterback can't see him. You're at his blind side. If Ziggy gets to the quarterback there's not a single quarterback in the league that's not going to be looking over his shoulder."
Ansah is still learning the game, but now he's doing it at the highest level. He understands there will be a learning curve and is just trying to work hard and figure things out. But sometimes he has to pinch himself.
"I'm just grateful for this opportunity," he said. "I want to make the most of it. So I approach every day as a day to get better. You can't be the best in just one day."
Jeff Benedict's latest book, The System co-authored by Armen Keteyian, comes out in September.