As longtime BYU defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi walked past the indoor track inside the university's Smith Fieldhouse one day, he couldn't help but notice a strapping athlete who was stretching his legs. That's one impressive-looking dude, Kaufusi thought, imagining what the dude would look like in a helmet and shoulder pads.
That was in the fall of 2009. The following spring, assistant track coach Leonard Myles-Mills walked the athlete Kaufusi had seen over to the office of head football coach Bronco Mendenhall, and asked if the coach would let the athlete try out for the team.
Thus began the improbable football odyssey of Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah, who came halfway around the world to Provo, Utah and has risen from a player who was so clueless he had to be shown how to put on his equipment to a projected top-10 pick in the NFL draft.
"When we saw him, we knew this guy could be an NFL guy if he continued to stick with it," Kaufusi said. "We knew he had the ability athletically. It was just a matter of all the intangibles. Was he tough? Could he take a hit? How strong was his willpower? How many plays could he make?"
Ansah answered all those questions eventually. But his evolution from a sprinter who ran bests of 10.91 in the 100 meters and 21.89 in the 200 meters for the Cougars track team to a disruptive defensive lineman who had 4.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss last season despite not starting for the first four games was a gradual process.
Because he could run so fast, Ansah started out on special teams, where he often was the first BYU player down the field on kickoffs, sometimes beating his teammates by five yards. The first time he played in a game was on the second-half kickoff against Wyoming in October 2010. Ansah didn't make the tackle but he took out three Wyoming players.
After playing six games as a special teams player and backup on the defensive line in 2010, Ansah doubled his playing time as a junior in 2011, when he again played on special teams and as a reserve D-lineman and linebacker. He had seven tackles (three solo) and a quarterback hurry.
He started the 2012 season as a member of the defensive line rotation, but took on a bigger role after nose tackle Eathyn Manumaleuna suffered a knee injury in the fourth game. Because injuries had made the Cougars thin on the line, Kaufusi was forced to make Ansah a starter in the base 3-4 defense for the final nine games.
Any NFL scout still unfamiliar with the 6-foot-5, 271-pound Ansah by the end of the season surely became acquainted with him in January in Mobile, Ala., where Ansah (six solo tackles, 1.5 sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss) was named the most outstanding player of the Senior Bowl. Or in late February at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, where Ansah's drills performances (4.63 in the 40, 7.11 in the three-cone drill, 4.26 in the short shuttle, and 34 1/2 in the vertical jump) bolstered his draft stock.
So how high does Ansah, who will turn 24 on May 29, expect to go in the draft?
"It depends on the coaches and the GMs, what everybody thinks," Ansah said at the Combine. "I know that regardless of the fact that everybody is telling me that I'm raw, I'm pretty good at what I'm doing."
Ansah's story begins in Accra, the capital city of Ghana, a country in western Africa, where his family still lives. His father, Edward, was a sales manager for a petroleum company, and his mother, Elizabeth, was a nurse. Both are now retired. Ansah has four older siblings.
Ansah began playing soccer when he was three, but eventually switched to basketball. He was playing a pickup game at his high school one day when he met a U.S. missionary from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Formerly an Anglican, Ansah converted to Mormonism and through the help of the missionary eventually was awarded an academic scholarship to BYU. (He studied statistics and last December graduated with a degree in actuarial science.)
A big fan of LeBron James, Ansah hoped to play basketball at BYU, but he was cut from the team both in 2008 and 2009. He later walked on to the track team and demonstrated his speed as a sprinter, but his shoulders were so wide that he kept bumping into other athletes.
Once he switched to football and started to learn the nuances of the game, he tried to educate his family. "I had to explain to them what the game was all about," Ansah said. "For now, they're reading about it and catching up on it."
Ansah, whose favorite food is fufu and peanut butter soup, is still learning about football himself. He often stays up late watching the NFL Network, even though he doesn't always know who or what he is watching. "This is going to be my life," he said, "so I just try to suck it all in."
About 20 plays into BYU's game at Boise State last Sept. 22, Ansah came in for the injured Manumaleuna. Not knowing exactly what to expect from Ansah, Kaufusi was hoping the defense didn't give up any long possessions. What Ansah did pleasantly surprised him.
"He was using his hands well, knocking people off, (and) had great separation," Kaufusi said. "And then you see him shed the blocker and that little burst to the quarterback. The quarterback could not get away from him. It was like he was a quick cat cornering somebody; there was no way you could get away from him. There were just so many plays where he would be disruptive."
At one point, Boise State tried to run a fake punt. Ansah penetrated the backfield and tackled the runner for a loss.
Injuries made the Cougars thin on the defensive line, so Kaufusi was forced to use Ansah as an end and tackle in the 3-4. Sometimes, Ansah would line up across from an offensive tackle. Other times, he would be in the gap between the tackle and guard, or straight up on the center. Kaufusi believes that if Ansah had lined up outside on a regular basis, he could have had 20 sacks.
Ansah's likely position in the NFL will be end, where he can use his pass-rushing skills. If the Jaguars don't select him at No. 2, either the Browns (sixth), Cardinals (seventh) or Titans (10th) could jump at the chance to take this unvarnished player with a ton of upside.
"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," said Ansah. "I'm going to be dedicated and do everything I can just to be the best player. I want to be the best player at this position. Even with the little experience I have. That is the challenge that I have."
Some scouts have compared the Ansah to Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (they are about the same height and weight), a first-round draft pick in 2010 who put up 16.5 sacks in his second season in the NFL. At the Combine, Giants GM Jerry Reese was asked about that comparison.
"I hate to compare players, but he is a long, tall, big athlete, probably a little bit raw, but you want to coach those kind of guys," Reese said. "There are probably some similarities there."
Kaufusi, BYU's D-line coach since 2002, knew it right from the beginning. Ansah does look good in a football uniform.