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BYU football: Cougars helping Ziggy Ansah deal with increased attention

PROVO — He's been featured prominently in the pages of Sports Illustrated. He's been hounded by agents, stalked by National Football League scouts. Last Friday, he was named an honorable mention All-America selection by Pro Football Weekly.

Not bad for a guy who came out of nowhere.

Actually, BYU's Ezekiel Ansah came from Accra, Ghana. And the senior defensive lineman is a projected first-round pick in the NFL Draft in April despite the fact that he’s only been playing the sport for a couple of years.

Indeed, life has changed immensely for Ansah, especially in recent months. His sudden fame has required coach Bronco Mendenhall and his staff to take measures to help him navigate these uncharted waters.

"We've had to put extra layers of help for him. There's really no place he can go without someone to advise him or trying to be affiliated with him," Mendenhall said. "I think we've done a nice job managing the agents, managing possible mentors for him in the future, and really trying to protect him so he can finish his finals and just play football. We're having to put a lot of focus on it."

BYU compliance coordinator Adam Sanft has overseen the process of helping Ansah select an agent.

"We've had to put a completely new process in place because of this," Mendenhall said. "Adam is running it for us after consulting with NFLPA and also some other schools that have had players in similar situations."

The coaching staff has been able to minimize the distractions for Ansah, and help him prepare to become a professional athlete. And he's remained grounded.

Right now, Ansah is just focused on his final game in a Cougar uniform as he prepares for the Poinsettia Bowl against San Diego State in San Diego on Dec. 20.

Meanwhile, ESPN's Mel Kiper, Jr., and other draft experts, have been gushing over Ansah's potential for weeks.

"Surely, there have been more scouts that have come in here than any other year," said BYU linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga. "That's saying something with John Beck, Austin Collie and Dennis Pitta having come through here on offense. There have been more scouts for this guy than any other year — for a guy that's really played one year of football."

What are the NFL scouts sayiing about Ansah?

"They love how strong he is, how fast he is, how big he is. Those three things combined, it's very rare to find a guy like that," said Poppinga, who played in the NFL for one season after his Cougar career. "They just love his upside. Not playing football for so long, they know he's just scratching the surface of what he can actually become. Every scout that's come in here has been amazed with how fast he's been able to pick up the game. That's the first question they ask is how smart he is and how fast he can pick up something. He can pick up our scheme fast. He can play five positions on our defense. They're very impressed with that. A first- or second-round pick is what everyone is saying. Obviously, he'll have to do good things at the (NFL) Combine, but he's put his name out there."

Ansah has been invited to participate in the prestigious Senior Bowl in January.

Poppinga and defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi are among those on BYU's staff that are counseling Ansah, ensuring that he isn't "surrounding himself with some scumbag guy out there that's trying to take all of his money and take advantage of him,” Poppinga said. “He's really naive to all that. He honestly has no clue of what's happened to him. Being in Sports Illustrated, he doesn't get that. It doesn't make sense to him. I was talking to him about it and he looked at me like, 'What's the big deal?' It's cool to see a kid that's come as far as he's come and being as humble as he's stayed and not got caught up into everything. He's an impressive kid. I'm lucky to be around him as a coach and to see his progression over the years."

Poppinga recalls when Ansah first walked on to the team that he didn't know anything about football.

"His first year, we ran him down on kickoff and he's just running. He's not running to the ball, just running," he said. "He didn't know the object of the game was to tackle the guy with the ball. To see how far he's come … he understands our defense, all-around, probably next to Kyle (Van Noy), there's not a guy that understands it better."

Van Noy, who is Ansah's roommate, recalls watching Ansah trying to put on his pads for the first time and putting them on the wrong way or putting them on backward.

"I kind of watched and laughed," Van Noy said, adding that Ansah didn't know how to get into a three-point stance. "The first time he lined up, he looked like a crouching frog. He was just raw. He still is raw. But the potential he has is more than anyone I've ever seen play a sport ... I'm just glad I could be on the ride with him. No matter what success I have that comes to me, having someone succeed more than you is so much better than your own. That's probably why I'm so happy for him."

Ken Frei met Ansah while serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ghana several years ago. The two played basketball together and they became close friends. Frei baptized Ansah into the LDS Church and for a time they were roommates at BYU.

"Here's a guy from Africa that I knew who's now being talked about on ESPN. It's kind of crazy," Frei said. "And it's been a lot of fun."

As Ansah has faced increased scrutiny from the media and scouts, he's concentrating on his school work and football.

"He told me there were too many people in his life," Frei said. "He wanted to block all of that out and focus on finishing the season strong."

Ansah told reporters this week he doesn't know how much NFL players make. Ansah's family, like most people in Ghana, "don't have a lot of money or things," Frei said.

Signing an NFL contract "would be a life-changer financially, in what he could do to support his family," Frei said. "I'm sure that's something Ziggy has thought about."