What if I was to say one of the most efficient American football factories was African? No, not African-American; African. From the “Nigerian Nightmare” Christian Okoye to the Liberian leopard Tamba Hali, African-born athletes have had astounding achievements on the grandest gridiron. The reason, to put it simply, is that they work hard. The novel concept of working hard doesn’t ring in all players’ ears, consequently realizing only failure and not potential, but it does so in the ears of Africans. Allow me to elaborate.
One winter day, Ghanaian Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah walked into the vaunted coach’s corner of Brigham Young University where lead man Bronco Mendenhall was operating. Ansah sought counsel on the sport of American football. Mendenhall, honest and explicit, simply stated that he didn’t think the immigrant neophyte, a self-proclaimed “delicate flower,” could handle the rigors of the sport. However, he gave him a chance at being a longshot on the roster.
Winter conditioning rolled around and Ansah didn’t handle it quite well, failing to meet the requirements, but he was not to be denied. He worked hard in the ensuing days and showed his face in fall camp, where he would go on to make the team despite having never watched or played the sport. Three years later, the 6’5”, 270 lbs. former basketball player is the starting defensive end-outside linebacker and one of the fastest rising and most popular draft prospects.
The NFL’s “eye-test” is rather simple: a prospect must possess a combination of height, weight, length, speed and athleticism whilst in heavily padded armor. Ezekiel Ansah possesses all of these, checking in at an aforementioned monstrous 6’5”, 270 lbs. and having the athleticism of a power forward. He also has a great motor that enables him to be involved on the majority of the snaps he takes part in. However, sometimes there are no adjectives to describe the action that is witnessed on the field that still passes the eye-test. In this case, it is his instincts and ability to locate the ball that will have personnel men reeling back the game tape.
In the early moments versus Utah State, Ansah lined up at defensive end on the strong-side of the formation across the right offensive tackle. The tackle, an athletic mobile type, set deep in his kick-slide, briefly touching gloves with the BYU star before swinging into the wide side of the field to block. This signaled a screen pass, which typically is a pass-rusher’s worst nightmare as it usually precludes him from making a significant impact on the play due to lack of recognition. But it didn’t faze Ansah, who rushed with his eyes in the backfield the entire way and identified the offensive concept. Instead of going after the quarterback like a mad man, he stopped, flipped his hips, located the tailback and chased him down the line of scrimmage for a four-yard loss.
The play above isn’t the only one that depicts these characteristics. Interestingly enough, there are quite a few plays where Ezekiel Ansah will position himself to make a tackle on a ball-carrier or deflect a pass if he fails to reach the quarterback in his initial attempt.
In addition, his light feet, athleticism and brute strength are enticing characteristics in a pass rusher. However, it is above his broad shoulders where I believe will determine just how good of a player he could end up being. Despite the overwhelming physical talent, he still has a ways to go in cleaning up his footwork, pad level and hand use.
Starting with his footwork, Ansah needs to play with a consistent base. A base can be defined as the shoulder-width positioning of the feet to create a platform that balances the upper half of the body. There are multiple occasions when he doesn’t do this, versus run and pass, and as a result, he is knocked off his feet and eliminated from the play.
Moreover, when it comes to hand use, it will be pivotal for Ansah to develop in this area because he is a power rusher that will need to beat his opponent with quality technique rather than bending around the edge with sheer speed. He needs to consistently extend his arms to keep blockers at a distance in order avoiding letting them get control of him. He has a tendency to expose his chest when it comes to hand use, thus giving the blockers an open passage to his breast plates.
Last but not least, pad level is a priority for improvement. Winning one on one matchups is a difficult task when playing with high pad level because it negates any power advantage the rusher may have due to the inability to generate power from the lower body. To play with good pad level is to bend at the knees and sink the hips, allowing the power to go up the thighs and through the arms. This is a flaw that can be corrected through coaching but it’s not as easy as many believe. There have been plenty of rushers in the past that have had this issue and failed to overcome it, leading them to never live up to their potential.
Coast-to-coast and gavel-to-gavel, Ezekiel Ansah never stops moving. Initially a talented basketball player, the Ghanaian Ansah has morphed into a star pass-rusher at Brigham Young University through hard work and dedication that is common in African-born athletes. He possesses great physical traits, such as athleticism and brute strength, to go along with impressive instincts that could take him a long way in the NFL once he finally becomes a part of it in 2013.