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BYU football: Ziggy’s journey has taken Ansah from practice session novelty to top NFL draft pick

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“Sack 47.”

Throughout 2010 and 2011, “Sack 47” may have been the most constant note scribbled on my notepad while observing every BYU football practice the media was allowed to observe.

No. "47" referred to Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah and "sack" referred to what Ansah did to BYU quarterbacks.

Impressive as Ansah was in those practices, no one could have imagined that we were watching the development of a potential top-5 NFL draft pick. With the draft set to commence Thursday night, most pundits and experts project Ansah will be a top-10 pick, with many of those same pundits projecting him in their top 5, including ESPN experts Mel Kiper, Jr. and Todd McShay. Those two analysts have him going at No. 2 and No. 5, respectively.

Those types of projections seemed completely ludicrous as recently as six months ago to, well, just about everyone. Everyone except perhaps BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who made the out-of-character statement during spring practice in 2012 that Ansah had NFL potential.

Come again?

The statement left more than a few reporters rolling their eyes — with some openly ridiculing the statement. How could someone who had recorded a grand total of 10 tackles over two seasons while being used primarily on special teams be considered a future NFL player?

Mendenhall is not fond of hyperbole and certainly does not hand out compliments freely. He was obviously dead on with his assessment.

Ansah’s overall athleticism was very apparent from the first moment he stepped on the practice field. Throughout non-contact drills he’d show amazing quickness for someone of his size and stature and would often make that athleticism relevant during practice-concluding team drills.

The problem for Ansah was he was one-dimensional and would completely disappear during most contact drills — particularly during rushing plays. He was also somewhat of a "tweener," with coaches unsure whether he could best thrive at outside linebacker or at defensive end in BYU’s 3-4 base alignment.

Yet the sacks kept coming, with the same thing being scribbled over and over again in my notebook: “Sack 47”.

Given the disparity between his practice performances and game performances, reporters began to think of Ansah as somewhat of a novelty. He’d be a constant topic of conversation throughout practice sessions and became the butt of more than a few lighthearted jokes due to the added specter Mendenhall granted him with his glowing statements.

The joking about Ansah’s hype lessened considerably after a productive showing against Washington State to kick off the 2012 season. It ended, emphatically, after a breakthrough performance against Boise State three games later.

After starting defensive end Eathyn Manumaleuna went down with a season-ending injury, Ansah was thrust into a starting role against Boise State and responded about as well as one could imagine. Against the Broncos he led the team with eight tackles, which included 2 1/2 tackles for loss.

The type of performance he had against Boise State became commonplace the rest of the season, and it wasn’t long before his name started receiving mention as a high NFL draft pick. Most projections tabbed him as a late first-round pick before Ansah’s breakthrough performance at the Senior Bowl, which served as a sort of microcosm of his entire football career.

At the Senior Bowl, Ansah would provide off-the-chart individual stats, but struggled mightily during contact drills in practice sessions. Draft experts were quite vocal about Ansah’s struggles — labelling him as a "project" who had a ways to go to reach his athletic potential.

Then came the actual game.

Ansah completely dominated the course of play from the first snap and was gushed over by the game commentators and many reporters on Twitter and elsewhere. He was named the game's MVP and led off the Senior Bowl write-ups for more than a few national news services.

"The real story of the South team's 21-16 victory over the North squad was the defenses for both teams, and no player better personified that better than game MVP Ezekiel 'Ziggy' Ansah, the BYU sensation and former track star from Ghana who exploded off the snap over and over again," wrote Doug Farrar of Yahoo Sports.

"Though he appeared to have issues maintaining leverage in practices this week, Ansah really showed up when it counted, grabbing six solo tackles, 1 1/2 sacks, and 3 1/2 tackles for loss," Farrar continued. "At his best (which he most certainly was on Saturday evening), Ansah validated the comparisons to current New York Giants and former South Florida end Jason Pierre-Paul. The Giants took Pierre-Paul with the 15th overall pick in the 2010 draft, and he's proved that freakish athleticism and hard work can overcome limited experience in the game. Ansah looks to be on that same high-drafted path."

Indeed, Ansah saw his draft prospects skyrocket after the Senior Bowl and it's been a steady progression since.

Looking back on what Ansah has become is nothing short of incredible. Time and again he's proved able to overcome initial struggles and doubts before thriving in situations when it matters most.

I strongly suspect that next time Mendenhall tabs one of his players as an "NFL talent," few, if any, will be snickering. I also suspect that beat reporters, for whatever team drafts Ansah, will soon be filling up their notebooks with "Sack 47" — or with whatever phrasing they use to designate an Ansah sack — during practice sessions.

Email: bgurney@desnews.com

Twitter: @BrandonCGurney