Bronco Mendenhall beamed as he spoke about Ziggy Ansah's story -- how a kid who had never played football just a few years ago could become the fifth overall pick in the NFL Draft.
"It's one of the coolest things in coaching," the BYU head coach said Tuesday afternoon while in Arizona for the Amercan Football Coaches Association meetings. "It's one of the reasons we coach. I love him. We spent so much time together. Ziggy's transformation within three years, from not having played the game to being a Top 5 pick, is remarkable. Even in his senior season, an injury really promoted him to being able to play and have the role that he did. And then to sit with his mom who flies in from Ghana for the draft and that overwhelming feeling of seeing her experience -- with her sentiments that 'I'm so glad he got an education and I'm so glad he's surrounded by good people.' That was really refreshing to me."
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As impressive as Ansah is, by far the best player from the Cougars defense in 2012 was a guy who opted not to enter the NFL Draft -- LB Kyle Van Noy. The 6-foot-3, 240-pounder was a big-play machine for the Cougars, piling up 22 TFLs, 13 sacks, six forced fumbles, two INTs and also blocked two kicks. In BYU's Poinsettia Bowl win over San Diego State, Van Noy almost single-handedly destroyed the Aztecs, scoring two touchdowns himself.
Many figured it was the kind of game that would serve as a spring board to coming out early for the junior, who has made 45 TFLs in three seasons at BYU. But Van Noy opted to return to BYU for one more season.
Mendenhall said the feedback he and Van Noy got from NFL personnel folks was that the linebacker would likely go no later than the 44th pick in the draft.
"They said probably in the second (round) somewhere," Mendenhall said. "Some had him as late first. Some had him late in the 2nd. It's so hard to project though. There was a chance he could've gone in the first-round, but his motive to stay at BYU was the same reason he came to BYU. He thought he needed BYU and he could benefit from being there.
"I'm really glad he stayed. Not only for how I think he'll help our team, but I still think he'll develop substantially as a person and be even more ready for the NFL after last year."
The Nevada native, who shined on the football field and as a sprinter on his high school track team, has blossomed at BYU after almost not making it to Provo.
Coming out of Nevada, the Cougars had to beat most of the Pac-12 schools to land Van Noy, but right before signing day he got a DUI, which Mendenhall said actually suspended the player's opportunity to come to BYU.
"He could not come to BYU because he was not qualified to be there. He had to spend some time with Ecclesiastical leaders before he was admissible. He stayed with us, even though he had the option to go anywhere he wanted -- but he stayed with us at BYU which was pretty remarkable." (The school allowed Van Noy to enroll the following January.)
Asked what reservations NFL people might have about Van Noy (is at 240, he a shade smaller than what they prefer in a linebacker?), why he wouldn't be considered as a sure-fire first-rounder, Mendenhall said he didn't think there were any questions or skepticism undermining his draft stock.
"I've never figured out the NFL particularly," he said. "That (No. 44 overall) was just a number that seemed to surface a number of times as we were getting feedback. He's capable of anything. He can rush the passer well. He can play the run well. He's really good in coverage. I didn't really hear any negatives."
In terms of impact, Mendenhall compared Van Noy to another player he coached in college, Brian Urlacher, who played as a free safety in his defense at New Mexico.
"Production-wise they are very similar," he said. "Kyle is not as big, but Kyle is one of the most intuitive players I've ever seen in terms of knowing what an offense is doing, what play is coming and the effort that he plays with. It really is a great combination."