Ezekiel Ansah, Star Lotulelei making big impacts early in their NFL careers
Ross D. Franklin, AP
Forgive the national broadcasters who are struggling to pronounce the last names of two former Utah college football stars — BYU's Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah and the University of Utah's Star Lotulelei.
The two are NFL rookies.
But at the rate they are learning and producing in the pro game, broadcasters better learn how to say Ansah and Lotulelei's names soon. They will likely be saying them more often, as both have established themselves as starters on their respective teams three games into their careers.
The defenders shared a connection after both were drafted in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft — defensive end Ansah went No. 5 to the Detroit Lions and defensive tackle Lotulelei was picked 14th overall by the Carolina Panthers.
On Sunday, the pair also shared something — producing their first breakout game during a regular-season contest.
In the Lions' 27-20 victory over Washington, Ansah had two sacks, seven tackles — including three solo — a forced fumble, two quarterback hits and a tackle for a loss.
Lotulelei tallied the first regular-season sack of his NFL career as Carolina earned its first victory of the young season, 38-0 over the New York Giants. He also had two tackles — one for a loss — and a quarterback hit.
It's just the start of what looks to be a promising career for both players.
According to mlive.com's Justin Rogers, Ansah played in 62 percent (48 total) of the Lions' 77 defensive snaps against Washington.
The former BYU standout has a team-leading 2½ sacks and the Lions' lone forced fumble of 2013, in addition to his 11 tackles that is tops among Detroit defensive linemen.
He is on pace for a 13½-sack season.
Ansah's numbers could be even more impressive: he's also had two sack-fumbles wiped away by penalties.
“He makes plays whenever he goes in the game. I don’t know if it’s a progression to tell you the truth," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said one day after Ansah's big day against the Redskins. "I mean he learns something new every week, he practices well, his technique continues to improve but he just has that knack for being able to make a play on the field. This game was no different.”
This comes after Ansah didn't start in week one, instead coming off the bench in Detroit's 34-24 win over Minnesota on Sept. 8 after being slowed by a concussion during practice prior to the regular season. He still produced a half sack and three tackles in the Lions' victory that day.
Ansah's snaps could increase after Detroit defensive end Jason Jones was lost for the season with a ruptured patella tendon in his left knee that he suffered during the Lions' win Sunday.
"Remember when some were saying Detroit reached for the Ghanan at No. 5?" mlive.com's Kyle Meinke wrote. "He and (Willie) Young (10 tackles and one sack) are Detroit's most disruptive ends and should be on the field together in that top unit with Jones out of the picture."
Ansah is also impressing the fans in Detroit. Currently on the team's website, a fan poll asked the question, "Which defensive lineman has been most impressive through three games?"
Of the four options — which also include All-Pro Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Jones — Ansah is the runaway winner, collecting 52 percent of the more than 1,800 votes as of 4 p.m. MDT Tuesday. Suh is next, with 29 percent.
In addition, Ansah has been nominated for the Pepsi Next NFL Rookie of the Week honors for his week three performance, along with Cincinnati running back Giovani Bernard, Tennessee Titans wide receiver Justin Hunter, New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith and Cleveland linebacker Barkevious Mingo.
Farther east, the former Utah All-American's early career has prompted the Charlotte Observer's Scott Fowler to make a strong proclamation: "Lotulelei could eventually become the best defensive tackle in Panthers history."
Through three games, all of which he started at right defensive tackle, Lotulelei has nine tackles, including seven solo, in addition to his sack. The tackle total is second-best among the Panthers' defensive linemen.
Nearly half of his tackles, four, came in the Panthers' season opener against Seattle on Sept. 8. That day, Carolina held the Seahawks, viewed by many as a favorite to make the Super Bowl, to 70 rushing yards and a 2.7 yards-per-carry average.
His influence on the Panthers' defense is already impressing his more experienced teammates.
“He’s not a star,” Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy told the Observer. “He’s a superstar. And this superstar is a beast. I see some crazy things for his future. When and if he does keep developing, he’s going to be unstoppable.”
The Panthers are currently 10th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game, giving up 93.0 yards per contest on the game, and sacking Giants quarterback Eli Manning seven times on Sunday.
In assessing Lotulelei's early season efforts, ESPN's Kevin Weidl said, "The Panthers have received a strong early return for Lotulelei. He has made his presence felt on the interior. Lotulelei has been stout defending the run and has created disruption in the backfield while also showing impressive range."
With an emphasis on stuffing the run from his tackle position, Lotulelei has helped clog the middle and freed others like Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly to make plays all across the field. Kuechly, considered a top-flight inside linebacker, leads the team in tackles with 29.
“I’ve been happy,” Lotulelei told the Observer, “but I definitely feel like there’s a lot of room to improve. If I can clean a few things up, I’m going to make a lot more plays.”
Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @brandonljudd
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