In his 43 years of college coaching, Lou Tepper has seen plenty of NFL prospects, and he's sure he's got one in Akwasi Owusu-Ansah. The factors that make the Division II phenom so enticing—and so vexing—played out on a laptop at Indiana University of Pennsylvania one recent morning.
This is an article from the April 19, 2010 issue
Tepper, the IUP coach, called up a punt return from an October game against Edinboro. As Owusu-Ansah fielded the ball at his own 30 and circled back to the 26, Edinboro's Michael Battles grabbed his shoulders from behind as Ryan Skelton tied him up and tried to strip the ball. Owusu-Ansah appeared trapped—until, with a jerk of his shoulders, he shook off Battles and shrugged off Skelton. Sprinting to the 40, he then weaved and jitterbugged left through traffic halfway across the field. As Owusu-Ansah turned upfield, Battles and another teammate dived at his legs. He somehow stayed upright, broke another tackle at the 46 and was gone. Touchdown.
It was the second TD return by Owusu-Ansah (below) in a three-minute span; a few plays earlier he'd had a 78-yard man-among-boys kickoff runback, with a burst through the middle that showed off his NFL-worthy 4.38 speed. "He just annihilated our special teams," says Edinboro's Skelton. "We've never seen speed like that." The caveat, of course, is that Edinboro's tacklers were high school sized—Battles is 5'7" and 180 pounds, Skelton 5'9", 180. If Owusu-Ansah, at 6 feet and 208, is a pro prospect—his size is that of a big corner or typical safety—he should make mincemeat out of those guys.
The speed is so tempting, as is the strength. With a dislocated shoulder that would later require surgery, Owusu-Ansah bench-pressed 225 pounds 21 times at a March pro day; only six of 57 other defensive backs at the scouting combine were stronger. (Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, sure to be drafted in the top five, did 23 reps.) And so Owusu-Ansah is testing the acumen, and the guts, of personnel men on all 32 NFL teams in advance of the April 22--24 draft. Is he the third- or fourth-best safety, a low-second-round reach? Or is he more like a fourth- or fifth-round pick, a marginal corner prospect who'll play special teams but isn't guaranteed anything else?
One club executive who asked for anonymity told SI that his scouting staff, with the head coach and defensive backs coach present, spent 45 minutes last week watching video of Owusu-Ansah and discussing where to rank him: "We had guys who loved him and guys who were scared of him because of the level of [competition]." The team's final grade, he said, would likely be mid-third-round, an amalgam of excitement and trepidation.
"He's very interesting," says Indianapolis draft czar Bill Polian. "We're not afraid of small-school guys. At Buffalo we took Andre Reed [from Division II Kutztown]. And a couple of years ago we took [Division III receiver] Pierre Gar√ßon. If you dominate at that level, you can play here."
Owusu-Ansah's parents are from Ghana. His father, Joseph, was a student at Florida when Akwasi (Born on Sunday in the Akan language of Ghana) was born in Gainesville. The family moved to Columbus as Joseph went for his Ph.D. at Ohio State, and young Akwasi didn't play organized football until eighth grade. His high school, Columbus's Whetstone, didn't have a history of producing Division I prospects, and no big college program gave him a look. "I hurt myself by not going to more football camps to be seen," Owusu-Ansah said on a warm April day at Indiana. "But it turns out this was a great place for me to mature as a player."
Thanks in part to the mentoring of Tepper, who coached 28 years in Division I, including six as head coach at Illinois, where he nurtured NFL first-round defenders Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy. At IUP, Owusu-Ansah learned proper backpedal and cover techniques while playing mostly corner, then switched to safety for much of his senior year. He had just two interceptions and 27 tackles as a senior, but, Tepper explains, "no one threw at him. He was just so much better than everyone else. I've coached at Virginia Tech, Colorado, Illinois and LSU, and I can promise you he would have started and excelled in any of those programs."
NFL scouts started sniffing around after Owusu-Ansah ran a 4.46-second 40 as a junior—on a linoleum-tiled hallway in the field house. Scouts were on the sidelines of IUP practice regularly last fall. "I'd tell them all the same thing," Tepper says. "His height, weight and  time all fit the NFL. His character fits the NFL. And on Day One in the NFL he can cover kicks and return punts and kicks. I see him as a two-deep safety up there. He can play corner, but I think he'd be more gifted at safety."
Meanwhile Owusu-Ansah is having a blast. The travel is fun (he's made six visits to NFL teams), and he says he felt like a fan seeing Tim Tebow at the combine. He doesn't chafe, either, at concerns over whether he fits in the NFL.
"The draft process has been lovely," Owusu-Ansah said with a wide smile, using a word not usually associated with the grind of workouts and interviews with stodgy NFL types. "I've had to answer a lot of questions about the level of competition, and those people have a good point. Most guys I've played against won't play football when they leave college. But whoever drafts me will be getting a player with a chip on his shoulder. Now's my chance to show everyone I can play."