By Jim Thomas St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS — The first round of this week’s NFL draft will be brimming with defensive linemen. That’s nothing new.
But when it comes to the origin of that talent, well, that’s a little different.
For one, the state of Utah could be producing two top 10 D-line talents in University of Utah tackle Star Lotulelei and Brigham Young University end Ziggy Ansah. That doesn’t happen very often.
And that’s only the appetizer, because as the NFL attempts to become more of an international game, it’s attracting more and more international talent.
Ansah, for example, hails from that noted football hotbed of … Ghana.
“My family is back home in Africa,” Ansah said. “Two brothers, two sisters, mom and dad.”
His father was a sales manager for a petroleum company. His mother was a nurse. Both are now retired, giving them plenty of time to study this strange American game.
“I had to explain to them what the game was all about,” Ansah said. “For now, they’ve been reading about it and catching up on it.”
Not that Ansah is an expert on the subject. Ansah, who is Mormon, enrolled at BYU in 2008 on an academic scholarship. He tried out for the basketball team a couple of years. No go. He had a cup of coffee on the track and field team in 2009 but then decided to try out for the football team in 2010 — a sport he knew absolutely nothing about.
“I was really athletic,” Ansah said. “I didn’t want to just sit around and go to school. I wanted to do something. Since basketball didn’t work out, I wanted to do football.”
He had 10 tackles to show for his first two seasons at BYU, and was on nobody’s radar as an NFL prospect until his breakout season of 2012. Ansah had 62 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, and 41/2 sacks. He used his long arms (351/8 inches) to bat down nine passes. After the BYU season concluded, he was named most outstanding player of the Senior Bowl all-star game.
Now, he’s drawing comparisons to New York Giants star Jason Pierre-Paul.
“I think it’s the best story in the draft, I really do,” said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock. “A year and a half ago, a year ago, he was not even on NFL team’s draft boards. Now we’re talking about him as a top 10 selection who has played minimal snaps.
“It scares me, and it scares teams how little he has played. (In) Senior Bowl practices, very average… . In the game, he was the best player in the game.”
Another import who could find his way in the top 10 is Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner, a native of Germany.
Werner grew up watching the Berlin Thunder play in the now-defunct NFL Europe league. He started playing flag football at age 6, before moving up to tackle football.
He also played a lot of the Madden NFL video game. “That’s how I got to know the NFL,” Werner said. Werner even watched the NFL Scouting Combine religiously from Germany.
“Online, yup,” he said. “I remember I watched Chris Long, Mario Williams. Every year we just watched it. It was a big event. All the football players just gather around and just want to watch it together.”
Werner ended up at a prep school in the United States through what he called a “youth and football” international program. Next came Florida State, and here he is as one of the top pass rushers in the draft.
“I made a lot of sacrifice,” Werner said. “I left my country, my family, my girlfriend — she’s my wife today — just to be here and pursue this dream.”
It’s possible there could be a third foreign-born defensive lineman taken in the first round. Namely, defensive end Margus Hunt of Southern Methodist University, who was born and raised in Estonia.
He was a world-class junior thrower — shot put, discus, and hammer — who went to SMU to participate in track and field. But after SMU dropped track, Hunt switched over to football.
Among his achievements, the 6-8 Hunt blocked 17 kicks, which is an NCAA career record. Hunt is considered a late first-round or second-round pick.
But not all of the defensive line talent comes from unusual or far-flung places. In fact, two of the projected first-rounders have St. Louis roots.
Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson played his high school ball at Gateway Tech and should be gone by the time the Rams pick at No. 16 overall.
Meanwhile, North Carolina defensive tackle Sylvester Williams was born and raised in St. Louis, but played his high school ball for the Jefferson City Jays in mid-Missouri.
When it comes to being one of the best stories in the draft, Williams could give Ansah a run for his money. Williams was kicked out of Jeff City because, quite simply, he didn’t like attending school. He got himself back in school and played one year of largely undistinguished football for the Jays.
After graduation, Williams worked for a while in a factory making truck radiators for 18-wheelers. He decided to give football one more try, showing up unannounced at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College.
He earned a spot on the team, and after two years of junior college football signed with the Tar Heels. Williams now has a college degree and appears to have assembled his last radiator.