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San Diego • Of all the crazy stories that BYU football players like to tell about their teammate from Ghana who played football for the first time just two years ago but is on the verge of becoming an NFL first-round draft pick, linebacker Brandon Ogletree has maybe the best one.
Just the other day, Ogletree says, defensive end Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah asked him what NFC and AFC meant, and the differences between the two conferences in the NFL.
"It is just hilarious, because you think he is here," says Ogletree, holding his hand at eye level. "But he will say stuff that makes you realize he is almost like a baby when it comes to understanding football. It's totally hilarious, but totally cool."
And it's totally the best story of an otherwise mediocre season for the 7-5 Cougars, who will meet 9-3 San Diego State on Thursday night in the Poinsettia Bowl.
Much more was expected of the Cougars last August with a senior quarterback and experience on both sides of the ball. What was unexpected was the 6-foot-6, 270-pound Ansah, a special teams ace last year who began the season on the bench. He didn't start a game until Week 5 against Hawaii after getting his first real consistent time when Eathyn Manumaleuna went down with a season-ending knee injury against Boise State.
Now, one can't watch or read an NFL mock draft without noticing Anzah's name at the forefront. And his unique story he was discovered in his hometown of Accra, Ghana, by LDS Church missionary Ken Frei and steered to BYU because he wanted a shot at playing professional basketball like his hero, LeBron James was featured in Sports Illustrated.
"It is a great feeling. But most of all it is really humbling," said Ansah, who had to be told that being the subject of a major SI article is quite a big deal in this country. "I never knew I would get this far. It has been really humbling to me."
Ansah was twice cut from BYU's basketball team after tryouts, so he tried track, competing favorably in the 400 against guys half his size. Finally, BYU track coaches took him over to the football offices and introduced the player who has come to be known as "The Freak" to BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall and his staff.
To the teammates who literally had to show Ansah how to put on his hip, shoulder and thigh pads when he had them on backward, upside down or in the wrong places, the story is simply amazing.
"The first time he lined up, he looked like a crouching frog," says linebacker Kyle Van Noy. "Funniest thing I ever saw. … He was just raw. He still is raw. But the potential he has is more than anyone I have ever seen play a sport, actually."
The NFL is noticing. Todd McShay, an ESPN draft analyst, most recently had Ansah going in the first round, 24th overall, in his mock draft. Draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. told The Salt Lake Tribune that Ansah is going to be a high pick.
"We keep watching game after game, and Ansah is out there producing, and showing that great, great talent," Kiper said. "Jason Pierre-Paul [of the New York Giants] would be the guy that you automatically compare him to … because he was a guy that was in a rotation at South Florida, and all of a sudden he becomes a first-round draft pick, and now he is one of the best defensive ends, one of he best pass rushers, in the league. So Ansah is going to draw those comparisons."
Kiper said a lot of defensive ends could go in the first three rounds and Ansah could be the first senior DE taken if he shows well in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., next month and in the NFL Combine in February.
"I would say mid-first round, early first round is not out of the realm of possibility," he said.
Ansah is well-equipped to count up the money an early-round draftee can expect to make he had four statistics classes last semester alone and is on track to graduate next spring with a degree in actuarial science but doesn't have a grasp on exactly how much money NFL football players make, teammates say.
"He probably knows more than he's letting on," Ogletree said. "But [his rapid improvement] has never been about making it to the NFL. It has been really fun watching him evolve, and just his understanding and awareness, and just how tough he has gotten. He used to be the least physical player on the team. Now, no one is more physical."
Around campus, Ansah is known for wearing bright-colored clothing and large eye-glasses with no lenses in them so he will appear more studious. But he's easily one of the smartest players on the team a reason he was able to pick up football so quickly.
"I still have a long way to go," Ansah says when he's told he is about five months away from being a very wealthy man. "I am not thinking about that yet."
Mendenhall said so many agents and other folks are trying to get a piece of Ansah that the school has been forced to "put extra layers of help" in front of him.
"There is really no place he can go without someone trying to advise him or trying to be affiliated with him," Mendenhall said. "I think we have done a nice job managing possible mentors for him and really trying to protect him so he can finish his [schoolwork] and just play football. But we are having to put a lot of focus on it."
Because if the past three months have taught them anything, it is that the spotlight on Ansah is only going to get brighter.
Out of nowhere
BYU's Ezekiel 'Ziggy' Ansah started the season as an unknown, but is now getting plenty of attention:
• Projected to go 24th overall in April's NFL Draft by ESPN's Todd McShay
• Had eight tackles against Boise State, Georgia Tech
• Is a Phil Steele All-Independent First-Teamer
• Had career-high three tackles for loss and two sacks against Utah State
P BYU vs. San Diego State
Thursday, 6 p.m.
TV • ESPN