He learned quickly and began making an impression on the practice squad. "As soon as someone came to block him, it was like the blocker wasn't even there," says Chad Lewis, a walk-on tight end at BYU who played nine seasons in the NFL before returning as an associate athletic director. "He just exploded through people. He did it in a way that you could immediately tell football was foreign to him."
Unlike kids who grow up with the game, Ansah didn't know how to move on the field, how to initiate contact and create leverage. "He was not lowering down and gearing up to hit someone," Lewis says. "He was just running. That allowed him to hit opponents with a speed that they were not prepared for. But he also wasn't naturally protecting himself the way football players do. So he was taking blows to his body that most guys would never be able to endure."
After the kickoff against Wyoming, Ziggy started to see more time on special teams. It was only in certain situations, and he wasn't always successful, but he did begin to feel more comfortable. That extended off the field, as well. His sense of estrangement faded. Suddenly he was part of a team that did everything together, from conditioning and eating to traveling and attending church. He even began meeting women.
Ansah threw himself into football. He didn't go home at holidays or during breaks. Except for classes, he did nothing else. He began lifting every day and studying the game. After the season the coaches assigned him to room on the road with Kyle Van Noy, a 6'3", 235-pound linebacker from Reno, who had been a blue-chip recruit pursued by Oregon, LSU, Nebraska and other BCS schools. The previous summer, on the first day of full contact practice, Van Noy and Ansah had become acquainted. "I was just running," Ziggy says. "I didn't see it coming. Kyle hit me—oh, my goodness—I fell on the ground and rolled a few times."
Van Noy and Ansah spent hours together, lying awake at night, sharing their hopes and fears. Van Noy had never had a friend from Africa, and he'd never considered what it would be like to travel halfway around the world to attend college while learning a foreign game that is played before tens of thousands of fans that look different and speak a different language. He decided to mentor Ansah. "Kyle is like a brother to me," Ziggy says. "I love him. We watched a lot of film, and he taught me to stay low."
When Mendenhall saw Ansah starting to adopt Van Noy's training habits, he and the staff started to look at him as less of a project and more of a potential playmaker. When the 2011 season started—Ziggy's fourth year in school but only third year of eligibility—Mendenhall used Ansah on third downs as a defensive end or outside linebacker. Again, he was given simple instructions—get the quarterback.
In the off-season he continued to lift and work with Van Noy, and when 2012 began, he resumed his role as a situational player. Until Week 4, when everything changed. Noseguard Eathyn Manumaleuna, the Cougars' best defensive lineman, hurt his knee, and Ansah took his place. Boise State had no scouting report on number 47 as a nosetackle; Ziggy had never played the position. But when the Broncos recovered a fumble on BYU's one-yard line with 8:19 remaining in the third quarter, Ziggy introduced himself. On first-and-goal Ansah exploded out of his stance and met running back D.J. Harper just as he took the handoff, stuffing him for a one-yard loss. On second-and-goal Harper got the call again, and again Ansah beat his man, dropping Harper a yard behind the line.
The Cougars ended up taking over on downs. "It feels good when I [line up against] someone much bigger than me and I can dominate him," Ansah says. "Especially during the run plays. They can't run past me. I feel very good." That goal line stand erased any questions BYU coaches had about Ziggy's ability to stop the run. The next week he started. Over the final nine games of the season he is third on the team in tackles (48), second in sacks (4.5) and first in tackles for loss (13).
As the 2012 season winds down, Ezekiel Nana Ansah—a kid who had never touched a football before walking on—has become the dominant starter on BYU's defense, which is ranked third in the nation. He has bulked up to 270 pounds, and NFL analysts are predicting that he will be drafted in the first round this April. "The combination of his height, weight and speed is probably unmatched," one NFL scout says. "Plus, he's so strong. He's got that Jason Pierre-Paul type of physical upside."
"I always wanted to play pro basketball when I was a kid," Ansah says. "Coming to America, I had an idea I would have a chance to play in the league. Now it looks like I will play in a different league, the NFL. I've come a long way. But I can be better. I'm still learning."