Is the answer to the NFL's present trend of run-option quarterbacks a guy with almost no football past?
That is the daunting question revolving around BYU defensive lineman Ezekial "Ziggy" Ansah. In so many ways, Ansah is the latest version of Jason Pierre-Paul, a tall, fast and uber-athletic defensive end who didn't have much experience with the game. The difference is that Ansah not only has even less football experience than Pierre-Paul, but also Ansah has less experience with this country as a native of Ghana.
"It is crazy, to go from where I was a year ago to how much people are paying attention to me," Ansah said in his slightly halting English that reverberates through his kettle-drum voice. Ansah is viewed much like Pierre-Paul in 2010, a mid-first-round pick (Pierre, from South Florida, went No. 15 overall to the New York Giants) with high upside and lots of risk.
To hear Senior Bowl executive director and former longtime NFL scout and executive Phil Savage talk about Ansah, the top 10 appears to be a sure thing heading into the NFL scouting combine, which starts this week in Indianapolis.
"I'm thinking that maybe even the top five with the way that teams are so desperate to adjust what they're doing for all these read-option quarterbacks," said Savage, who watched Ansah take over the Senior Bowl last month as if he were already a level better than the competition. "You're going to need guys on the defensive line who can chase those guys down. Ansah is that guy."
Ansah finished the Senior Bowl with seven tackles, including 3 ½ for losses (1 ½ were sacks), and forced a fumble from Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib. Savage and many other observers said he was clearly the best player in the game.
Ansah is the NFL's version of a runway model. At 6-foot-5, 274 pounds and a wingspan of nearly seven feet, he runs like a track athlete. That's what Ansah did before finding his way to the gridiron. In fact, Ansah did lots of things before getting to football. There was soccer in Ghana. There was basketball, a sport he loved as he watched his older brother, Elias, play. Ziggy even dreamed of playing at the NBA level after he converted to Mormonism and came to the United States five years ago.
In track, he ran the 200, once clocking a 21.19 at a Mountain West Conference meet. That's a decent time … if you're a typical 5-foot-10 sprinter. At Ansah's size, that speed conjures images of an 18-wheeler headed down a mountain road with no brakes.
Ansah showed that power the first time he did any live hitting at BYU. He was on the kickoff coverage team in practice, took off running and laid waste to three blockers along the way, turning any hope of a blocking scheme into a jumble. As Ansah ran off the field, all BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall could think to himself was, "How do I find a way to use this guy?"
The Cougars didn't find many ways until this past season, when Ansah finally got regular playing time after an injury to the starting nose tackle. Despite playing inside, which is unusual for someone of Ansah's height and weight, he had six tackles for losses (including three sacks) in his first three starts. He finished the season with 13 tackles for losses (4 ½ sacks) in limited time, leading many NFL scouts to wonder what might be if Ansah was let loose on the world.
That wonder was fueled at the Senior Bowl. After what Savage termed a so-so week of practice from Ansah, he took over the game.
"He was the best player in the game, by far … Basically, he took over the game," said Savage, who watched from field level. "A lot of people figured he would be able to rush the passer because of how well he can run. But then he showed he can put his hand in a big offensive lineman's chest, get off that block and play the run. Once people in the NFL really look at the tape, he's going to shoot up the boards.
"I was talking with one [NFL] scout and he said, ‘If this was recruiting, I'm not sure he wouldn't be the top recruit in the country.' In the draft, you only get your pick and then you have to wait, so taking a guy like Ansah is tough because of the risk. But if you can recruit other guys who you know are sure things, you can take a risk on a guy like this and really go after him. Like I said, he might be the top kid in a situation like that, and I think after the combine there are going to be a lot of teams at the top of the draft wondering if they should take a shot."
Or as another scout put it: "The upside is a [Pierre-Paul], Demarcus Ware-type athlete. He's what we're all looking for from an athletic perspective. But, yeah, there are a lot of questions."
Ansah gets the big picture that goes with the questions. Truth is, he probably understands them better than most of the people who will be doing the asking. Ansah is majoring in actuarial science, which is the study of mathematical and statistical methods to finance and insurance as they pertain to risk management, along with a minor in math. The son of a father who is a retired Shell Oil executive (Ghana is Africa's leading oil exporter) and a mother who is a nurse, Ansah comes from a family that values education. He is the youngest of five siblings, and his four older brothers and sisters all went to college.
He is on a path to be a high-level insurance professional, which means he understands risk assessment and the numbers that go with it. He automatically gets that NFL people will look at him with a wary eye. At the same time, he has a confidence that they will love.
"This is a business that people take very seriously," said Ansah, who has already dealt with rejection, being cut twice after trying out for the BYU basketball team. "People need to know who I am and what I can do."
OK, so how fast are you going to run in the 40-yard dash?
"Oh, we'll see what happens," Ansah said. However, between the tone of his voice and his choice of study, there is no doubt that Ansah knows exactly how fast he is, probably down to the hundredth of a second.
Ansah laughs when called out on that.
"In other words, you know exactly how fast you are, but you don't want to say. You just want people to enjoy the show," a reporter said to Ansah.
"You could say that," Ansah replied after his rumbling chuckle.
But athletic ability is only the beginning of the questions. As with Pierre-Paul, there's a concern of how much an athlete can love a game he only started playing a few years ago. More importantly, even for a player as smart as Ansah, can he learn the subtle nuances of the game fast enough to translate ability into instinctive play?
It is one thing to flash ability the way Ansah has, even in an all-star game. It's another thing to play consistently, to do things that can be counted on week after week, when coaches are trying to design successful game plans.
For instance, what happened during the week of practice leading up to the Senior Bowl? Why didn't Ansah jump off the page in practice the way he did in the game?
"I was listening to the coaches and trying to learn what they were telling me," said Ansah, who was being coached by the Detroit Lions staff. "In the game, I switch my mind and just go."
Fair answer, but there are some issues that words – or even actions, to this point – can't adequately address.
For instance, does Ansah love football enough to play through the pain that goes with a 16-game schedule? Better yet, is his body even conditioned to do it?
Ansah does his best to respond, but understands the overarching issue.
"I love the game," Ansah said. Again, his laugh gives a better answer than his words can share. There is a toughness to how he talks that's typical of people who enjoy the painful side of the game. "I'm trying to think of one moment, but there are a lot of them. Probably covering kickoffs, when I was just running and hitting people."
As much as some people like the idea of getting the next Pierre-Paul or even a guy like Stephen Neal, a guard with New England who never played in college but played eight seasons in the NFL before retiring after the 2010 season, the success rate for players with non-traditional football backgrounds is questionable.
Perhaps the best example – or worst, depending upon your perspective – is former New York Jets defensive end Vernon Gholston, who had to be talked into playing football in high school, just like Pierre-Paul. Gholston, who also is exceptionally bright, ended up at Ohio State and became an even more successful college pass rusher than either Pierre-Paul or Ansah.
Gholston went No. 6 in the 2008 draft to the Jets. In three years with the Jets, Gholston never recorded a sack and was cut. In each of the past two years, he was with a team in training camp but didn't last past August.
Or there is Jets offensive lineman Vladimir Ducasse, who moved to the United States from Haiti when he was 14, started playing football in high school and played at the University of Massachusetts before being a second-round pick in 2010. Ducasse has started one game in three years with the Jets, and what little playing time he has received has been shrouded in mild controversy. In November, Jets offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo, who was fired earlier this month, indicated that he was being forced to play Ducasse on roughly 25 percent of the snaps.
With players such as Gholston and Ducasse, small things can have large ripple effects because of their lack of experience.
One former Jets employee said that Gholston's confidence was shot in his very first game. Gholston, who was under pressure to fulfill a five-year, $32.5 million contract that included $21 million guaranteed, missed a sack of Miami quarterback Chad Pennington, who had recently left the Jets.
"I just remember that play so vividly and how he seemed to think about that play over and over again," the former Jets employee said. "He wasn't a guy with a lot of confidence, and I think that with the pressure of the contract and the New York media on him, he just went into a shell."
For Ducasse, the 2011 NFL lockout deprived him of vital learning time with the coaching staff. When Ducasse came back to the team after the lockout, it was almost as if he were starting over again as a rookie, the former employee said.
Another highly drafted project who didn't pan out was former Jacksonville wide receiver Matt Jones, an option quarterback in college whose athletic ability never translated to the NFL game. He had some drug issues before quitting the game.
The problem is that for all the questions about Ansah, there is just as big of a question facing coaches who are seeing more and more quarterbacks with running ability, such as Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick.
"You need big, strong athletes who can not only play the run and rush the passer, but who can chase down all these quarterbacks," Savage said. "You're seeing it at the college level. Nick Saban at Alabama changed his recruiting to deal with (Heisman Trophy-winning Texas A&M quarterback) Johnny Manziel and what they're doing at Ole Miss and now Auburn with the spread.
"Yeah, there are a lot of 235- and 240-pound guys who can run, but they can't deal with those 300-pound offensive linemen when teams run straight at them. Here, you have a 270-pound man who can run like that. You have to think about that guy. You have to think hard."
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