NFL Draft: Ziggy Ansah, Star Lotulelei give state of Utah a 1-2 punch
BYU’s Ansah goes to Detroit at No. 5; Utah’s Lotulelei taken by Carolina at No. 14.
Published: April 26, 2013 01:25PM
Updated: April 26, 2013 08:56PM
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Star Lotulelei, right, reacts as his wife Fuiva holds their daughter Pesatina, 1, after being selected 14th overall by the Carolina Panthers during an NFL football draft party at their home, Thursday, April 25, 2013, in South Jordan, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

One went to New York to experience the green room and all the glamour that the NFL Draft had to offer.

The other stayed in Utah with his family and friends, he and his wife shedding tears on national television upon his selection into the ranks of professional football.

Together, Ziggy Ansah and Star Lotulelei made history.

For the first time since 1987, two players from the state of Utah were taken in the first round. For the first time since Jim McMahon, BYU can boast that it has produced a top-five pick. And for the first time since 2010, a Cougar has heard his name called on draft day, period.

Ansah — a cat-quick defensive end — went No. 5 to the Detroit Lions, a team desperate for defensive line reinforcement. Lotulelei — the All-American Ute defensive — was drafted No. 14 by the Carolina Panthers, where he will play with former Utes Steve Smith and Jordan Gross.

Once regarded as a top-three talent, a pre-draft heart issue caused Lotulelei’s stock to dip slightly. However, at No. 14, he is regarded as a steal. In a sure sign of a team thrilled that Lotulelei was still on the board, the Panthers took about 20 seconds to submit their decision to select him.

“We’re very excited because Star impacts the game on every snap,” Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said. “It starts with his size and power. Star has unusual athletic ability for a man his size. He’s a space-eater, and he’s a great fit for us.”

Lotulelei was at least as happy as his new team.

“I couldn’t be happier to be a Carolina Panther,” he said in a statement. “It was great to get the phone call from the Panthers. Real happy … very emotional … real happy to be in this position.”

Lotulelei projects to play in the Panthers’ scheme right away and fills a need as a gigantic run-stuffer in the middle of the defense.

Lotulelei becomes the first defensive tackle in the history of the franchise to be selected in the first round. As a senior with the Utes, he made six All-American teams. He’s the fourth-highest draft choice to come out of Utah in school history, and he’s a two-time Pac-12 All-Conference selection.

“Our guys have done well in Carolina, and I’m happy for him,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “I know what type of player he is. I saw him every day and know his capabilities. There is no doubt in my mind that he will anchor their defensive line for years to come. He’s a great technician with good pad level. He eats up those gaps inside.”

Ansah, meanwhile, became one of the most unlikely draft stories in NFL history.

Before the draft, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. called Ansah the fastest draft board riser he’s seen. On Thursday, that became reality when the Lions selected him.

Ansah possesses the speed needed to become a pass-rusher off the edge. At 270 pounds, Ansah also has the size to play the run. He projects as a defensive end who can play all three downs. The Lions made it clear after drafting him that they expect him to contend for immediate playing time.

“We drafted him to play right away,” Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. “We didn’t draft him to be a project.”

Ansah’s unlikely journey to pro football began as a walk-on with the Cougars. A native of Ghana, Ansah has just nine career starts — modest experience when compared with his first-round counterparts. His athleticism and power have made him a hot commodity. He registered 62 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 13 tackles for a loss in his senior season. He runs a 4.6 40-yard dash. The thought is that his best football days are well ahead of him.

“This is a great feeling,” Ansah said. “I’m really happy they picked me. The coaches worked with me at the Senior Bowl, and I just can’t wait to work with them. I can’t wait to get to the city of Detroit. It’s a very good fit for me, and I’m going to give it all I’ve got.”

In Detroit, Ansah will team with All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who comes from a family with roots in Cameroon.

“From Ghana to Detroit, welcome my African brother! Let’s do work!” Suh said via Twitter.

Former Baltimore Ravens coach and current NFL Network analyst Brian Billick liked the Lions’ pick, though he says it doesn’t come without risk.

“Ansah has a very high ceiling, but also a very high floor,” said Billick, a former BYU tight end. “He was not even a BYU starter entering the 2012 season, but has all the tools to be great.”

tjones@sltrib.com

A closer look

Ziggy Ansah

• Ties Jim McMahon as the highest draft pick in BYU history.

• Is the ninth BYU player in school history to be selected in the first round.

• Is the 11th BYU player to be taken by Detroit.

Star Lotulelei

• Is the fourth-highest draft choice in Utah school history.

• Joins former Utes Steve Smith and Jordan Gross with the Carolina Panthers.

• Played at Bingham High and Snow College before coming to Utah.