WHEN EZEKIEL ANSAH ARRIVED ON the BYU campus in the fall of 2008, the trilingual former soccer player from Ghana had not only never played football, he'd never even seen a game on TV. He was an actuarial science major on academic scholarship. He was also 6'5" and 271 pounds, so he tried out for the Cougars' basketball team. He got cut. So he tried out again in 2009 ... and got cut again. Ansah then walked on to BYU's track team as a sprinter. But all the while, coaches and classmates kept telling him: You should try out for football.
He finally took their advice in 2010. Based on pure athletic ability, he made the team and saw his first game action midway through that season covering kicks. By 2012, Ansah was a starter at defensive end for a Cougars squad that went 8-5, nearly ended Notre Dame's winning streak in October and won the Poinsettia Bowl in December. Now Ansah is expected to become just the 11th Cougar -- and the first since 2000 -- to be selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Everyone has fallen for the affable kid who in three short years has progressed from someone who couldn't identify an end zone to being the best defensive end prospect in the country. Here's how it happened.
Kyle Van Noy, BYU linebacker
"Ziggy's first practices as a walk-on in 2010 have kind of become legend, but it's all true. He tried to cram the wrong pads into the wrong slots on his pants. He put his shoulder pads on backward. The first times he lined up, he either just stood there straight up or he'd get down like a frog on all fours. But nobody laughed at him because he was so big we were afraid of what he might do to everyone if he got mad."
Bronco Mendenhall, BYU coach
"He had no concept of how to tackle, no idea about leverage or getting low on someone to bring them down. He just ran around hitting stuff, straight up. But he was so fast and so naturally strong that technique didn't matter. The first time we ran him in some kickoff drills at practice, he took off and knocked down about nine guys, all arms, and never broke stride. The play ended and he was just standing there, bodies all over the ground around him, looking like, 'What? Did I do something wrong?' One of the first times we put him into a game was on kick coverage halfway through the 2010 season [against Wyoming on Oct. 23]. The same thing happened. We basically just said, 'Go hit the guy with the ball.' He ran 10 yards ahead of everyone else and brought the player down by himself."
Romney Fuga, BYU nose tackle
"We got him in the weight room and realized he had no idea what he was doing. He'd never lifted a weight in his life. But we'd all seen him with his shirt off and we thought, Wait, all of this is just DNA?"
Chris Petersen, Boise State coach
"We played BYU in our third game of the 2012 season. Thursday night, national TV. It was a super-tight game when we recovered a fumble on their 1-yard line in the second half. Well, BYU has been strong along the defensive front for decades, but their best defensive end [Eathyn Manumaleuna] was out with an injury, so we were thinking we might have an advantage. We were going right at that position. But suddenly this No. 47 blasted in and dropped [running back] D.J. Harper for a loss. Next play, he did it again. They ended up stopping us on downs. We had zero information on No. 47, so our staff was scrambling for a roster, asking, 'Who is this guy?' He was so big, we wondered if maybe BYU had a jersey mix-up and one of its starters had switched numbers for a couple of plays or something. It turned out that Ansah had just never really played before. I don't know how many tackles he had, but it was a lot. And he also blew up a fake punt attempt. On one hand, we felt like, Man, how could we let some unknown guy beat us like that? Then when we saw what he did the rest of the year, it was like, Oh, he did that to everybody. Unfortunately, he had his arrival moment against us."
Steve Kaufusi, BYU defensive line coach
"After the Boise game, I ran up to Ziggy with the stats. I told him he had eight tackles, two and a half for a loss, broke up a pass and had the first sack Boise had given up all year. This is a guy who had seven tackles in all of 2011. I was going crazy; he just smiled and said, 'Thanks, Coach, I think I did good too.' I don't think he understood what he'd done. And he did it on national TV, with everybody in the NFL watching."
Omoregie Uzzi, Georgia Tech right guard
"As complicated as people think our offense option is, the goal is really simple: All of us on the offensive line just look across to see who we're facing and say, 'Okay, that's the guy I have to beat on this play.' We're constantly sizing players up, and it takes a lot to surprise me. I'm 6'3", 300 pounds -- not a giant, but not small either. Well, we lined up against BYU [on Oct. 27, 2012] and I saw this 6'5" guy standing in. I thought, Whoa! I looked over at [left guard] Shaquille Mason and was like, 'Good luck, dude.' Ansah killed us. He was all over the place all day. But the crazy thing was, the whole time he was smiling and very polite, like, 'This is fun; thank you for playing with us today.' You don't want to like a guy who is beating up on you, but you couldn't help it with him."
Todd McShay, ESPN NFL Draft analyst
"I'm watching Ansah film and I get to that Georgia Tech game in which he had eight tackles and a sack. I was so impressed that I started tweeting while I watched. His explosiveness is what separates him from other defensive ends, which is where he'll play in the NFL. He just killed the guard and fullback in the Georgia Tech game. If that fullback quit football forever after that game, I would totally understand."
"Remember that first time on special teams? Fast-forward to our last game of 2012, the Poinsettia Bowl against San Diego State. We were calling a defense that had Ziggy as the screen defender. He popped off the line and drew the block from the tackle. When the tackle released, Ziggy turned, got in his hip pocket and made the play. This was a guy who understood the nuances of the game. He was basically fake rushing, inviting the screen so he could make a play on it. That's where we are now, just a couple dozen games removed from 'Go hit the guy with the ball.' "