We all knew about Star.
A year ago at this time, Utah’s mountainous defensive tackle was hardly a secret. Ute fans practically danced in the streets of Salt Lake City when Star Lotulelei opted to put the NFL Draft on hold for one more season. He was a sure first-round pick at the time. It’s no surprise that he’s expected to be taken with one of the top 10 selections when Thursday’s draft commences and the names are called out in New York.
But none of us knew about Ziggy. Not back then.
A year ago, BYU’s defensive end was little more than a novice to football. Ezekiel Ansah was projected to become a starter for Bronco Mendenhall. He had the body and the athleticism to perhaps garner a late round selection if he showed well at the NFL Combine. Beyond that, nobody could guarantee a professional future for Ansah. But when the draft begins, he too is expected to be taken in the first handful of picks.
Two players. Two drastically different paths. Together, they figure to make local history on Thursday night.
Never has the state seen two top-10 picks in the same NFL Draft. This may be the year.
Lotulelei was once thought to be a candidate for the top pick, the first for a local since Utah quarterback Alex Smith was taken No. 1 in 2004. But a pre-draft heart issue and the emergence of players like Luke Joeckel and Dion Jordan curtailed that talk. Still, mock drafts have him pegged as high as No. 4 to the Philadelphia Eagles, a team he visited on Friday, according to reports. Most draft analysts agree Lotulelei won’t make it past the New York Jets at No. 9.
“You want to build along the lines in the NFL,” Eagles general manager Howie Roseman told reporters recently. “And you talk about the offensive and defensive linemen in this year’s draft. It may not be the flashiest thing for your fan base. But it’s exciting for your franchise to see that kind of talent on the board.”
Ansah has been one of the fastest risers the draft has ever seen. He’s been playing football for only a few years. At this point, he is still very new and very raw. But he’s 6-foot-5 and 271 pounds, which makes him big for a defensive end. The intrigue lies in his speed and athleticism — rare for a guy his size.
At times, Ansah was dominant for the Cougars this past year, spearheading a BYU defense that finished as one of the best in the country. He also impressed in the Senior Bowl and at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.
“Ansah’s enjoyed as meteoric a rise up the board as I’ve seen in my 35 years of covering the draft,” ESPN analyst Mel Kiper said. “I would say he could go second to Jacksonville, or fifth to Detroit, or at eight to Buffalo at worst. Anywhere in there is where he could come off the board. It’s amazing, considering he was off the radar, completely undrafted when the season began.”
Lotulelei and Ansah aren’t the only two local players expected to be drafted. Utah State cornerback Will Davis — who developed into one of the best secondary players in the country — has a good shot to come off the board by the third round. If he does, it will be the third consecutive season the Aggies have had a player go in the first three rounds.
USU running back Kerwynn Williams also has a good shot to be drafted, as much for his return skills as his backfield prowess.
Offensive lineman Sam Brenner and defensive end Joe Kruger of Utah are both good bets to be drafted somewhere. Utah’s Dave Kruger also could be picked, as could Southern Utah quarterback Brad Sorensen.
Other local draft hopefuls
Will Davis, cornerback, Utah State • Could go anywhere from the third to the fifth rounds. A one-year starter. Stock rose significantly with a great senior season and a good showing in the Senior Bowl.
Kerwynn Williams, running back, Utah State • Should find a home in the later rounds — Green Bay is very interested. Has value for his versatility. Can run, can catch out of the backfield, and is a terror in the return game.
Joe Kruger, defensive end, Utah • A true pass-rush guy with size, Kruger had an injury-plagued junior season and then left school early. Still, the former Pleasant Grove star is 6-foot-7 with good speed off the edge. Someone will pick him up.
Sam Brenner, guard, Utah • Started for three years at Utah. Came into his senior season allowing just two sacks in his career. Is big and powerful. Will have a chance to earn a roster spot.
Braden Brown, offensive tackle, BYU • Not projected to be drafted, but will get an invite and have a chance to stick somewhere.
Brad Sorensen, quarterback, Southern Utah • He’s rated the No. 15 QB on some draft boards. A possible late-rounder.