Jeff Benedict: Former BYU standout Ziggy Ansah making a big impact with Detroit Lions

Published: Thursday, Aug. 8 2013 9:21 a.m. MDT

Ezekiel Ansah shakes hands with fans during Detroit Lions fall camp.

Jeff Benedict

At this time one year ago I had never heard of Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah. It’s fair to say few people outside of Provo had. Certainly nobody in the NFL knew his name. Why would they? Ansah’s claim to fame was that he didn’t know how to put on his shoulder pads when he walked on at BYU. He wasn’t even a starter when I covered BYU’s season opener last year against Washington State.

Back then it was hard to fathom this scene that I witnessed two weeks ago at the Detroit Lions training camp in Allen Park, Mich. It was a few minutes past nine on a picture perfect Sunday morning. U2’s “Beautiful Day” pumped through the sound system. More than 2,000 fans decked out in blue and silver looked on as Ansah emerged from the locker room wearing No. 94. Kids chanted “Ziggy, Ziggy” as he stepped onto the practice field to stretch.

Camp had been underway for a few days. But this was the first day in pads. I thought to myself: What a difference a year makes.

In April, Ansah was the fifth overall pick in the NFL draft. In May he signed a four-year, $18.6 million contract that included an $11.9 million signing bonus. All eyes were on him when he dropped into a three-point stance for his first pass rushing drill. How would the big rookie perform?

Answer: Fast. On the snap of the ball, Ansah exploded past a veteran offensive tackle. Untouched, Ansah pummeled a pop-up dummy representing a quarterback. It was a bang-bang play that had the left tackle cursing, the coaches smiling, and Lions’ beat writers nodding their heads with approval.

I spent a few days observing Ansah and interviewing his teammates and coaches at training camp. Everyone agrees that the evolution of Ziggy from Ghana to BYU to the NFL is unprecedented.

"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 Lions defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. "I've never seen anything like it. Especially in the position he plays. Ziggy is out there taking on 300-pound men."

Ansah is as surprised as everyone else. "I can't believe I'm doing this," Ansah told me after his first scrimmage. "I pinch myself every day. I get paid to play. It's something I can't really comprehend.

"I'm just grateful for this opportunity," he continued. "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."

It’s that kind of approach – gratitude and humility – that has endeared Ansah to his teammates and his coaches.

It also helps that Ansah is performing extremely well on the field. He has memorized the defensive schemes and is always in the right position.

“The sky is the limit with Ziggy,” said Lions head coach Jim Schwartz. “He doesn’t have a lot of experience. But he’s a very instinctive player. He’s really aware. He gets things. He picks up schemes quickly. He knocks down passes and plays screen passes. He breaks the mold.”

He’s also proven that he’s capable of adapting to any situation. When he came to BYU as a freshman from Africa he had to get used to extreme differences in culture and weather. The transition from the college game to the pro game is just as extreme.

"It's like an all-star game every day," Ansah said. "Everyone is big. Everyone is fast. Everyone is strong. It's very different than college."

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