Nationals

BYU DE 'Ziggy' Ansah making big impact in a hurry

BYU DE 'Ziggy' Ansah making big impact in a hurry

PROVO, Utah (AP) He grew up in Ghana, goes by ``Ziggy'' and actually tried out for the Brigham Young basketball team.

Yet the guy with a 39-inch vertical jump and arms that reach well above the rim instead has been wreaking havoc on the football field for a Cougars defense ranked fifth nationally and No. 1 against the run entering Saturday's game against No. 10 Oregon State (4-0).

To think Ezekiel Ansah didn't even know how to put on his pads three years ago.

``He had no idea,'' said BYU 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 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 only has 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 4-yard 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 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, too.

``Because he's from Africa and talks with an accent and all he wants to talk about is soccer,'' said quarterback Riley Nelson, 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, but he's breathing down your neck in a hurry and if he catches you, look out,'' Nelson said.

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, 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 opener).

The 6-foot-1, 198-pound Vaz played in five games in the 2010 season, completing 6 of 17 passes for 48 yards, and hasn't taken any snaps since for the Beavers.

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 for 13 consecutive quarters and has held its last dozen opponents under 300 yards offense.

While Van Noy, and fellow linebackers Spencer Hadley and Brandon Ogletree may be the better-known playmakers, Ansah is putting up stats just as fast, chasing down quarterbacks, running backs and even playing on special teams.

In the opener against Washington State, he sniffed out a screen, fought through a double team and delivered a spectacular throw-down for an 8-yard loss.

``He doesn't realize how special that is and we love that about him,'' Nelson said. ``He's almost looking at you like, `What, is that good?' And you're freaking out because you've never seen it before. That makes it fun.''

Last week Ansah split another double team and sacked elusive Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton from the back side, then got him a second time.

He'd also have a monster game against No. 24 Boise State, leading a goal-line stand and blowing up Boise State's fake punt - though the Cougars fell by one after a two-point conversion pass was tipped away,

``The sky's the limit because he has that natural physical ability,'' Nelson said. ``The stuff that is in your DNA, he's got every ounce of it.''

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Bryce Harper's 2018 Home Run Derby win by the numbers

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USA Today Sports

Bryce Harper's 2018 Home Run Derby win by the numbers

Bryce Harper is the 2018 Home Run Derby champion.

In his home ballpark, Harper put on a show Washington won't soon forget.

He ran through a division foe in the first round in Freddie Freeman, took out a strong, hefty lefty in the semifinals in Max Muncy and then hit nine home runs in 47 seconds in the final minute of the final round when it seemed like he had no chance. On the second swing of his 30 seconds of extra time, Harper launched a bomb to deep center field to win.

And while winning the Home Run Derby in his own ballpark is an impressive feat on its own, the numbers behind his victory make it all the more impressive.

3.

He is just the third hometown winner of the Home Run Derby in the history of the event. Todd Frazier did it most recently in 2016 in Cincinnati, and Ryne Sandberg won at Wrigley Field in Chicago in 1990.

13.

Harper won each of the first two rounds with 13 homers. He didn't need his full time in either of the first two rounds.

446 & 441.

Harper's first two home runs of his first-round matchup against Freeman traveled farther than any of the Braves' superstar's dingers.


10.

In the semifinals, Harper only hit three homers in the first minute, but then blasted 10 in his next 11 swings. That's called efficiency.


5.

In the first round, Harper hit five of the 10 longest home runs of anybody in the field.


45.

Harper hit 45 bombs en route to claiming the title. Here's a visual representation of all of them.

That's also how many dollars cheaper Nats tickets will be... oops!


2.

That's John Wall's number and this is him celebrating his fellow D.C. sports superstar's victory.


19,058.

Bryce Harper hit an absurd 19,058 feet of home runs during the 2018 Home Run Derby. That's more than the 5k you ran last year.

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With All-Star Game in Washington, Bryce Harper looks back on baseball life, ahead to uncertain future

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USA Today Sports Images

With All-Star Game in Washington, Bryce Harper looks back on baseball life, ahead to uncertain future

It's quite possible that, despite nearly a decade of being in the spotlight, gracing the cover of magazines and operating as a transcendent star in the sport of baseball, Bryce Harper's attention-drawing powers reached their apex this week in Washington as the 2018 All-Star Game took center stage at Nationals Park.

Harper has played in plenty showcase games before, he's participated in the Home Run Derby, he was the first overall pick in 2010. But this time the Midsummer Classic is in his professional baseball hometown and he is the primary ambassador for both the team and league. 

Oh, and this is also a pretty big year for his future. The 25-year-old is just months away from being one of the most sought after free agents in the history of the sport and perhaps soon the highest paid.

Harper took it all in stride on Monday as he held court in a club level ballroom at Nationals Park on South Capitol St. He knew the questions about his future were coming and he had answers for every single one of them.

Some of those questions included:

Do you ever have guys on other teams try to recruit you?

Has it ever crossed your mind how odd it would be to play somewhere else?

Do you have a relationship with [Yankees star] Aaron Judge?

One reporter didn't even finish his question before Harper sniffed it out.

When you shaved your beard [on June 19]... 

Harper: ..."it was because the Yankees were in town, right. You got it," he said sarcastically. "My beard was getting too long. My wife wanted me to trim it and it was a good idea."

Harper has by most accounts become closed off in recent years. His personality has been withdrawn. He famously began his first spring training press conference earlier this year with a written statement and a warning that any questions about his free agent future would result in him walking out of the room.

At least for a day, Harper was his old and congenial self. Though, he did explain why his personality has changed with the media in recent years.

"I think I've gotten older. I'm not going to say the same things at 16 that I do at 25," he said. "There were things that people did in college that they don't want people to know about. There are things that I've said in the media at 16 or 17 that I guess I was real about. I can't take them back and I don't want to."

Harper has been able to operate throughout the first half of the season while saying very little of substance to the media. The fact his batting average has dipped to just .214 has given him extra reason to put up walls.

As Harper addressed the media, he didn't offer any trademark one-liners, but he did get introspective about his life as a baseball player and his role as the face of the Washington Nationals.

He spoke glowingly about the franchise and the city, about how much he enjoys seeing the same faces every day, from his teammates to those in the front office to stadium employees and security guards. He shared his appreciation for the fans and area kids who look up to him.

The All-Star Game taking place in D.C. offered Harper a chance to reminisce. As Harper looked ahead to the Home Run Derby, he rattled off the most memorable homers he has seen at Nationals Park. 

He mentioned Jayson Werth's walkoff homer in Game 4 of the 2012 NL Division Series. He brought up the time Michael Morse hit one to the top of the Red Porch in left-center and the many times Adam Dunn cleared the third deck in right field.

Harper was asked about his the pressure of playing host and the duress of struggling in a contract year. He told a story from his days at the College of Southern Nevada that put it all into perspective.

"I got absolutely dominated for two weeks prior to our season opening before fall ball. I'm sitting there at 16 years old, I just got back from Team USA," he recalled.

"I got punched out like nine or 10 times in probably a matter of about 12 at-bats against my own team... I sat down and was like 'you know what, I don't want to do this. I want to go back to high school. I want to enjoy those moments and do that.' But I knew that I couldn't do that. I sat down and they said 'you can't come back, you tested out.' I said 'okay, you've gotta cowboy up.' I needed to do what I needed to do. A week later, we started our fall ball season and I went deep in my first at-bat at Cashman Field. The rest is history, I guess you could say."

If Harper had indeed been able to go back to high school, his draft status would have changed. He never would have been drafted first overall by the Nationals in 2010.

Harper feels the pressure of playing in junior college ball with his draft status on the line, playing against guys who were four or five years older than him, was the toughest thing he has done in baseball. It prepared him for all of these moments, just like the media scrutiny did over the years.

"It was only what, [eight] years ago? It's those moments that make you who you are," he said. "I'm 25 years and old and I play this game of baseball every day. What pressure do I have to feel?... It's the game that I love to play. I'm getting chills [right now]. There's nothing greater than running out there wearing No. 34 and being Bryce Harper and loving the game that I play."

Harper remained patient and upbeat for the over 30 minutes that he addressed the media. He was soaking it all in and trying to embrace the attention he was receiving.

But it was one of those questions from above that provided a dose of reality to set in. When asked if it would be strange to play for another team, he reminded the reporters present of what could very well happen this winter.

"It's always a possibility [I leave]. I think that everybody knew that at the beginning of the year, that this could possibly be my last year in D.C. Everybody knows that. There's no elephant in the room. Everybody knows that it's a possibility, but I'm not really focused on that," he said.

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