PROVO — As BYU outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga watched the Senior Bowl on television last month, he couldn't help but laugh.
Poppinga is one of the Cougar coaches that was instrumental in Ziggy Ansah's intriguing and mercurial rise from novice to phenom. Poppinga was there when Ansah, a native of Ghana, showed up at practice at BYU and didn't know the difference between hip pads and thigh pads.
Now, Ansah, a defensive lineman/linebacker, has been projected by some experts to be selected in the top 10 — some say top five — of the first round of the National Football League draft, which begins on April 25.
Ansah's stock rose significantly after he was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Senior Bowl, where he collected seven tackles, including 3.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
"I watched the entire Senior Bowl, and I recorded it. I thought he played amazing. I was just laughing the whole time because it was so fun, as a guy who had coached him before, it was so rewarding," Poppinga said. "I had seen him play like that all season. But to be with those guys that he was with, guys getting a lot of hype and then him being the one that was the best player on the field that day — and not just for a couple of plays, but for the entire day — he just dominated. To see him do the little fundamental things that was so hard for him at the beginning when he was learning the game, to see it come so naturally for him against really good competition, it was great to see."
Ansah also impressed during the recent NFL Combine. Thanks to his efforts the past year, and particularly in recent weeks, he could be the highest NFL draft pick from BYU since quarterback Jim McMahon was taken in the first round — fifth pick overall — by the Chicago Bears in 1982.
The last time a Cougar player was drafted in the first round? Linebacker Rob Morris in 2000, No. 28 overall.
For a program that hasn't had a single player drafted since tight end Dennis Pitta in 2010, Ansah being selected in the first round would be a huge feather in the Cougars' cap.
The dearth of BYU players drafted has prompted some to think that coach Bronco Mendenhall doesn't care about producing NFL talent.
Not so, Mendenhall said.
"I think that's been misunderstood a little bit," the coach said. "I'm as passionate, if not more, about our players going to the NFL than anyone else, as long as they can maintain, and grow, in other areas of their lives. Unfortunately, in many cases, I've seen just the opposite happen with players that go in. That balance is something that I work hard to educate our guys about. I'd love, and I want, for our players to be in the NFL and represent this institution there. But more importantly, represent the values that we have. I want them to be able to do that and maintain their standards and live the kind of lives I know they want to live."
In Ansah's case, coming from a very different culture, he could be vulnerable to various influences.
"My biggest concern is hopefully he can handle what he doesn't have an idea is what's getting ready to hit him," said Mendenhall. "I've been trying to be helpful to him in who he surrounds himself in terms of agents and mentors and friends, and making sure he's strong in the (LDS) Church and being able to withstand the superficial forces that are going to come after him to help him remain who he is. He's very intelligent, he's very smart, but he's also very sincere, genuine, humble and naïve in a lot of ways in relation to what he's getting ready to go into. I'd love for him to be able to remain that way. Myself, my wife and my kids celebrate every success that he has because we like him."
Ansah's unique story is benefiting the BYU football program, according to Poppinga.
"It's really fun to see him get all the publicity that he's getting," he said. "It helps him out, but it also helps our program out to see a guy that's going to be a potential first-round draft pick. For recruiting purposes, just getting that out there throughout the country is big for us."
Since Ansah finished up his collegiate career in December, the BYU coaching staff has been staying in touch with him.
"I bumped into him at the mall before the Combine and I've been texting him and calling him, letting him know we care about him and that we wish him the best," Poppinga said. "For him to do what he did in the NFL Combine, I couldn't be happier for the kid. I saw him do the outside linebackers drills right after his D-line drills, and the first ball he dropped. I was thinking, 'Didn't you learn anything from me?' I texted him that night and said, 'When you get back, we have to do our ball drills again.’ ”
BYU is holding its annual Pro Day on March 28. Poppinga said Ansah is planning to participate in that event in Provo.
"He's mad that he ran a 4.63 in the 40-yard dash (at the Combine)," Poppinga said. "He says he'll get a 4.5 on Pro Day. That's what he wants to do. But we'll see what his agent tells him."
Mendenhall marvels at all that's happened to Ansah in a relatively short period of time.
"It's an amazing thing that he wasn't recruited, then he finds himself at BYU," Mendenhall said. "To see him having the success he is having is so much fun. It's an amazing story. As Ziggy would probably tell you, he was on the verge of quitting football 50-plus times over his three years here because of how difficult the transition was. It would be a best-selling book, or a box-office smash if anyone of real quality told the story. That I was able to be part of it in some way has been one of the highlights of my career here."
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @AJeffreyCall
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company