Published October 11, 2012
PROVO, Utah – He grew up in Ghana, goes by "Ziggy" and actually tried out for the Brigham Young basketball team.
Yet the guy with a 39-inch vertical jump and arms that reach well above the rim instead has been wreaking havoc on the football field for a Cougars defense ranked fifth nationally and No. 1 against the run entering Saturday's game against No. 10 Oregon State (4-0).
To think Ezekiel Ansah didn't even know how to put on his pads three years ago.
"He had no idea," said BYU center Braden Hansen. "Now the word I use to describe him is 'beast.'"
The senior actuarial major has been racking up the stats in just his third season playing football — ever. The American sports icons he followed before arriving in Provo at age 19 were NBA stars named Jordan, Kobe and LeBron, and his first team at BYU was the track team, where he clocked 21.9 seconds in the 200 meters.
"It's been a long journey and sometimes I sit back and don't know how this came about," said the 6-foot-6, 270-pound defensive end/linebacker. "I appreciate my teammates, and the motivation I get from everybody keeps me on track."
The player who once had BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall scratching his head seemingly only has scratched the surface of his ability, though NFL scouts are taking a look at him along with linebacker Kyle Van Noy, a Lombardi and Nagurski Trophy watch list candidate and Ansah's roommate on the road.
In a 6-3 win last week over Utah State, Ansah had five tackles, three for loss, two sacks and two quarterback hurries. He announced his presence just two plays into the game against a running back fresh off a 260-yard rushing/receiving performance.
Ansah recognized a screen pass to Kerwynn Williams and slammed him to the ground for a 4-yard loss. Williams would finish with 14 carries for 18 yards and five catches for 39.
"I had to earn my respect," Ansah said of the play.
He certainly has earned it from teammates and coaches, especially Mendenhall, who was more than a bit surprised when Ansah showed up at his office unannounced in 2010 at the urging of friends.
"I was telling Bronco I want to try out for football and he looked at me like, 'What are you thinking?' He told me it was going to be really hard and if I'm ready, to go out there and do it.
"I think he tried (to discourage me), but it didn't work."
With that Ansah flashed a wide smile, one that has made him a favorite among his teammates. Actually, there are plenty of other reasons, too.
"Because he's from Africa and talks with an accent and all he wants to talk about is soccer," said quarterback Riley Nelson, expected to start Saturday for BYU (4-2) after sitting out two games with a back injury.
What's funny, Nelson said, is that Ansah is so unassuming.
"He had no clue what he had as far as physical tools or ability," Nelson said. "Not only is he big and strong, but he's fast, too."
Nelson has calculated that for every two steps Ansah takes, he needs four to escape his rush.
"Now I've got quick steps, but he's breathing down your neck in a hurry and if he catches you, look out," Nelson said.
Undefeated Oregon State certainly will be aware of Ansah, especially with junior backup Cody Vaz making his first collegiate start Saturday in place of Sean Mannion, out indefinitely because of a left knee injury suffered in last week's 19-6 victory over Washington State (a team BYU beat 30-6 in the opener).
The 6-foot-1, 198-pound Vaz played in five games in the 2010 season, completing 6 of 17 passes for 48 yards, and hasn't taken any snaps since for the Beavers.
Now Vaz faces a BYU team ranked first in the nation in rushing defense (59.5 yards) and red zone conversions (40 percent), third in scoring defense (8.8 points), tied for third in tackles for loss (50), tied for sixth in sacks (20) and fifth overall (229.3 yards a game). BYU's defense also has kept opposing offenses from scoring for 13 consecutive quarters and has held its last dozen opponents under 300 yards offense.
While Van Noy, and fellow linebackers Spencer Hadley and Brandon Ogletree may be the better-known playmakers, Ansah is putting up stats just as fast, chasing down quarterbacks, running backs and even playing on special teams.
In the opener against Washington State, he sniffed out a screen, fought through a double team and delivered a spectacular throw-down for an 8-yard loss.
"He doesn't realize how special that is and we love that about him," Nelson said. "He's almost looking at you like, 'What, is that good?' And you're freaking out because you've never seen it before. That makes it fun."
Last week Ansah split another double team and sacked elusive Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton from the back side, then got him a second time.
He'd also have a monster game against No. 24 Boise State, leading a goal-line stand and blowing up Boise State's fake punt — though the Cougars fell by one after a two-point conversion pass was tipped away,
"The sky's the limit because he has that natural physical ability," Nelson said. "The stuff that is in your DNA, he's got every ounce of it."