O'Hara: Ziggy Ansah is a work in progress ... and by all accounts progressing well

Posted Aug 21, 2013

The question that has to be answered is how quickly Ansah can convert raw ability to production

Ziggy Ansah is learning pro football on the run – and on the pass rush, the sack and by the tackle.

Throw in an interception and a touchdown, too.

In a full offseason, training camp and two preseason games, Ansah has taken a crash course in playing right defensive end on the Lions' front four.

He is shortening the arc on his learning curve to make up for any lack of football experience.

Ziggy AnsahDE Ziggy Ansah

Ansah, who came to the Lions as a raw rookie drafted fifth-overall out of Brigham Young, is a work in progress ... and by all accounts progressing well.

Ansah understood early on that learning the pro game is hard work, with no easy plays or easy days.

"It's intense, it's competitive," Ansah said. "Everyone is good over here.

"'Easy play?' 'Easy' doesn't exist in the dictionary when you come out here."

The clock is ticking fast on the Lions and on Ansah. There are two more preseason games -- Thursday night against the Patriots at Ford Field, and the following Thursday at Buffalo -- before the regular season begins against the Vikings on Sept. 8.

The NFL's clock stops for no one. The Lions need a bounce-back season from last year's disappointment, and Ansah is a big part of their plans.

The front four is the foundation of the Lions' defensive scheme. It has to dominate for the defense to function effectively.

Ansah is a rare athlete. At a little more than 6-5 and 271 pounds, he has the speed to run the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds and the leg explosion to record a vertical leap of 34.5 inches.

However, the question that has to be answered is how quickly Ansah can convert raw ability to production.

I'll put my two cents in right now: the experience question is valid, but it is part of the equation, not the answer. It's just as valid to point out players who grew up in football environments and were either slow to develop or failed entirely.

"Everybody comes from a little different spot," said Lions head coach Jim Schwartz. "It really doesn't matter. I probably started football when I was seven, and that didn't do me a whole lot of good. I didn't take to it the same way that Ziggy did.

"I don't know that there is such a thing as being a natural, but he has natural aptitude. He applies things pretty quickly and figures things out pretty quickly."

Pedigree in sports doesn't guarantee anything.

Consider the following:

  • Bruce Smith was an All-State high school player in Virginia. The Bills drafted him first overall in 1985 after an outstanding career at Virginia Tech. Smith holds the NFL record for career sacks with 200 and made the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
  • Chris Long is the son of Howie Long, a Hall of Fame defensive lineman with the Raiders. Chris Long was drafted second overall by the Rams in 2008 after a fine career as a defensive end at Virginia. Chris Long struggled for three years with the Rams but has had double-digit sacks the last two seasons.
  • Tyson Jackson was the best high school defensive lineman in talent-rich Louisiana. He played four seasons at LSU, three as a starter at defensive end. The Chiefs drafted him third overall in 2009. Despite all that experience, Jackson's had five sacks in four years.

The bottom line on three high draft picks: one Hall of Famer, one son of a Hall of Famer who took time to develop in the pros, and a star from the NCAA's top conference who has played below expectations.

The back story on what ultimately brought Ansah to the NFL is well documented. He grew up in Ghana, went to Brigham Young on an academic scholarship in 2008, tried basketball and track and finally went out for football in 2010.

After two seasons as a backup and special teams player, he started in 2012 and put his explosive talent on display. He also played in the Senior Bowl under Lions Schwartz and his staff and was the defensive star of the game.

That's Ansah's football resume: three years of college, one all-star game. There was no Pop Warner, no Police Athletic League, no high school football.

However, he did practice football for three seasons at BYU, despite getting little time on defense his first two years.

Ansah's performance in the first two preseason games ranged from spectacular to solid. In the opener against the Jets, he was spectacular, returning an interception for a TD on the defense's fourth play and later adding a tackle for a loss.

He was solid against the Browns, going up against left tackle Joe Thomas, who has made the Pro Bowl every year since being drafted in the first round in 2007.

"He didn't show up in the stat sheet, but he played a lot more consistent and was much more effective within our defense," Schwartz said, comparing Ansah's performance in Game 2 vs. Game 1. "I thought that was a bright spot."

Ndamukong Suh doesn't see an experience gap, if one exists, being a problem for Ansah. Ansah has enough college experience to make the jump to the pros, Suh said.

"It's enough, without question," Suh said. "He's here for a reason. He has that ability. He has the mental capacity to grasp everything that comes with playing at a very high level.

"But obviously, everybody has a learning curve. I'm still going through my learning curve."