PROVO, Utah — He grew up in Ghana, goes by “Ziggy" and actually tried out for the Brigham Young University basketball team.
Yet the guy with a 39-inch vertical jump instead has been wreaking havoc on the football field for a BYU defense ranked fifth nationally and No. 1 against the run entering Saturday’s game against No. 10 Oregon State (4-0).
And to think, Ezekiel Ansah didn’t even know how to put on his pads three years ago.
“He had no idea," said Cougars center Braden Hansen. “Now the word I use to describe him is ‘beast.’"
The senior actuarial major has been racking up the stats in just his third season playing football — ever. The American sports icons he followed before arriving in Provo at age 19 were NBA stars named Jordan, Kobe and LeBron, and his first team at BYU was the track team, where he clocked an impressive 21.9 seconds in the 200 meters.
“It’s been a long journey and sometimes I sit back and don’t know how this came about," said the 6-foot-6, 270-pound defensive end/linebacker. “I appreciate my teammates, and the motivation I get from everybody keeps me on track."
The player who once had BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall scratching his head seemingly has only scratched the surface of his ability, though NFL scouts are taking a look at him along with linebacker Kyle Van Noy, a Lombardi and Nagurski Trophy watch list candidate and Ansah’s roommate on the road.
In a 6-3 win last week over Utah State, Ansah had five tackles, three for loss, two sacks and two quarterback hurries. He announced his presence just two plays into the game against a running back fresh off a 260-yard rushing/receiving performance.
Ansah recognized a screen pass to Kerwynn Williams and slammed him to the ground for a loss. Williams would finish with 14 carries for 18 yards and five catches for 39. “I had to earn my respect," Ansah said of the play.
He certainly has earned it from teammates and coaches, especially Mendenhall, who was more than a bit surprised when Ansah showed up at his office unannounced in 2010 at the urging of friends.
“I was telling Bronco I want to try out for football," Ansah recalled, “and he looked at me like, ‘What are you thinking?’ He told me it was going to be really hard and if I’m ready, to go out there and do it.
“I think he tried (to discourage me), but it didn’t work."
With that Ansah flashed a wide smile, one that has made him a favorite among his teammates. Actually, there are plenty of other reasons for his popularity, too.
“Because he’s from Africa and talks with an accent and all he wants to talk about is soccer," said quarterback Riley Nelson, who is expected to start Saturday for BYU (4-2) after sitting out two games with a back injury.
What’s funny, Nelson said, is that Ansah is so unassuming.
“He had no clue what he had as far as physical tools or ability," Nelson said. “Not only is he big and strong, but he’s fast, too."
Nelson has calculated that for every two steps Ansah takes, he needs four to escape his rush.
“Now I’ve got quick steps," Nelson said, “but he’s breathing down your neck in a hurry and if he catches you, look out."
Undefeated Oregon State certainly will be aware of Ansah, especially with junior backup Cody Vaz making his first collegiate start Saturday in place of Sean Mannion, who is out indefinitely because of a left knee injury suffered in last week’s 19-6 victory over Washington State (a team BYU beat 30-6 in the season opener).
The 6-foot-1, 198-pound Vaz played in five games in the 2010 season, completing six of 17 passes for 48 yards. He has not taken a snap for the Beavers since.
Now Vaz faces a BYU team ranked first in the nation in rushing defense (59.5 yards) and red-zone conversions (40 percent), third in scoring defense (8.8 points), tied for third in tackles for loss (50), tied for sixth in sacks (20) and fifth overall (229.3 yards a game). BYU’s defense also has kept opposing offenses from scoring a touchdown for 13 consecutive quarters and has held its past dozen opponents to under 300 yards of offense.