Ezekiel Ansah played his first football game in 2010. Less than three years later, the BYU defensive end is a potential first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
The typical NFL draft prospect starts his football career in elementary school, becomes a standout by the time he is in high school, is recruited by major college football programs and starts his college football career with NFL dreams.
Ansah’s journey has been much more complicated and makes it all the more remarkable that he is on the verge of being an early NFL draft selection.
Ansah was born and raised in the country of Ghana, where the word football means association football, not American football. There, he attended Presbyterian Boys’ Secondary School and had dreams of playing professionally in another sport—basketball.
"I always wanted to play pro basketball when I was a kid," Ansah told Sports Illustrated. "Coming to America, I had an idea I would have a chance to play in the league.”
Ansah was right that he had a chance to play professional sports. He just didn’t know yet that it would be in a sport that he had never played before.
After converting to the Mormon faith as a high school senior, Ansah came to BYU in the fall of 2008 hoping to become a Division I basketball player. According to SI, he tried out for the Cougars’ basketball team in both 2008 and 2009 in an attempt to make his basketball dreams a reality but failed to make the cut both times.
Ansah first found athletic success at BYU in track and field, walking on the team in 2009, according to the Deseret News. Ansah’s fastest time that season in the 200-meter dash was 21.9 seconds—a time not quite fast enough to contend nationally at the NCAA level, but an incredibly fast time for a 6'5" athlete built more like a discus thrower than a sprinter.
From Walk-On to Superstar
It takes a rare athlete to make a Division I football program having never played the game before, let alone become one of the best players in the nation and an NFL prospect. At 6'5", 274 pounds with sprinter speed, Ansah is that rare athlete.
According to SI, Ansah was 250 pounds when he walked in BYU head football coach Bronco Mendenhall’s door in the fall of 2010. Although he had never played football, he caught onto the game quickly enough to see action in six games that season.
Ansah’s fast development from his first football practice to seeing action at a Division I football program says a lot about his ability to learn quickly and his work ethic, but also indicates his natural athleticism.
Even coming into his senior season, though, Ansah was an unknown outside of BYU. A linebacker who notched only seven tackles as a junior, Ansah was on no one’s draft radar heading into his senior season.
It didn’t take long for him to emerge in 2012.
Ansah began making a name for himself in his first game of the season, coming up with two tackles for loss and a pass breakup in BYU’s season opener, a 30-6 victory over Washington State. Through six games, Ansah already had eight tackles for loss, three sacks and three pass breakups and was starting to get his name tossed around by draft media as a potential early draft pick.
Ansah finished his senior season with 13 tackles for loss (4.5 sacks), 10 passes defended and 62 total tackles.
Why Ezekiel Ansah Could Be Drafted Very High
If not for a rare combination of size, length, quickness and speed, Ansah’s transition from football newcomer to star defensive lineman likely never would have been possible. Now, Ansah enters the 2013 NFL draft with one of the highest upsides of any prospect in the draft class.
Ansah fits the textbook definition of a boom-or-bust prospect.
With very little football experience, Ansah’s game is understandably raw, and if he is going to make it at the next level, his pass-rush technique needs to become much more developed.
Ansah’s lack of experience, however, could actually help his draft stock. There is reason to believe that Ansah has only scratched the surface of his football potential, considering his vast improvement in his senior season, which gives an NFL team the possibility of taking advantage of his raw ability and molding him into a star for its defense.
Breaking Down Ansah’s Game
Ansah has great length with 35-inch arms and an 82-inch wingspan, and he is a terrific athlete. With very good speed, he can bring heavy pressure when he has a lane into the backfield, and he can track down runners in space and downfield. He has good lateral quickness and great leaping ability for a defensive end.
As a pass-rusher, Ansah is very much a work in progress. He does not have a particularly explosive first step, but when he gets past his blocker(s), he can bring heavy pressure because he is often faster and quicker than the opposing quarterback.
Ansah has the strength to bull-rush his opponents and the quickness to make blockers miss. He can rush both around the edge and inside, and although he often drew double-teams as a senior at BYU, he was often able to split them and bring penetration.
His hand technique as a pass-rusher, however, is undeveloped, and he will not be able to have the same success he did in college beating blockers on his size, speed and strength alone.
While it would be a massive stretch to project Ezekiel Ansah as the next J.J. Watt, one skill he does have in common with Watt is his ability to bat down passes. Ansah has great vertical leaping ability and does a great job timing his leaps at the line of scrimmage to get his long arms and big hands on passes. His 10 passes defended in his senior season tied Michigan State’s William Gholston as the most for a defensive lineman during the 2012 season.
As a run defender, Ansah is inconsistent. Although he has the strength to drive back linemen and set the edge, he is too often taken out of the play by his blockers. When he gets past his blockers, he can chase down runners with his speed, but he needs to become a more sure tackler, especially if he were to convert to outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
In addition to his contributions on defense, Ansah also played on special teams and has the speed to continue being an asset there at the next level.
Where Ansah Should Be Drafted
Ansah is very enticing because many of his flaws are coachable and learnable, and he has the natural athletic gifts that can only be inherited. But if Ansah ends up as an early first-round draft pick, it will be because a team becomes overly enticed by his potential and ignores his flaws.
There is certainly a lot to like about Ansah. His success story is remarkable and heartwarming and could not have been accomplished without work ethic, intelligence and natural ability. His ceiling is among the highest of all draft prospects in the 2013 class, and he has the potential to be a three-down difference-maker at the next level.
Many of Ansah’s flaws are correctable. Even with a lack of pass-rushing moves and a stance too upright, he was among the nation’s most productive defensive linemen in his senior season.
What Ansah isn’t, however, is the next Jason Pierre-Paul as some make him out to be. While he has the speed, explosive leaping ability and length that help to make JPP great, he lacks the first-step quickness of an elite pass-rusher.
Ansah is best suited to play on a 4-3 defense, where he can rotate in and out at defensive end and also have the ability to line up as an inside pass-rusher. Given his measurables, he will certainly draw interest from 3-4 teams as well, but he would have to become stronger at the point of attack to play as a 5-technique defensive end and would have to become a more consistent tackler in space to play outside linebacker.
Given the potential he has shown and the physical upside he has, Ansah is well worth taking a chance on with a Day 2 pick. Although the deficiencies in his game make him a very risky first-round pick, there is a strong likelihood that a team will be intrigued enough by his success story and his potential to draft him very early.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft featured columnist at Bleacher Report.