ALLEN PARK, Mich. — The Detroit Lions have made some head-scratching picks in previous years, drafting who they thought was the best-player available even if he didn’t address an apparent need.
This year, through three rounds, the Lions have selected a trio of prospects with the potential to fill voids and start as rookies.
Detroit drafted Mississippi State cornerback Darius Slay in the second round and Kentucky guard Larry Warford in the third Friday night, one day after taking BYU defensive end Ziggy Ansah fifth overall.
“We’ve found matches for the things we were looking for,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz said.
Detroit’s first pick, Ansah, has a lot to be thankful for, and he knows it.
Ansah has had what he calls “a crazy journey” that started in Ghana, took him to Brigham Young, and now the automobile capital of the world.
“I don’t even know how to start,” Ansah said Friday, a day after Detroit drafted him No. 5 overall. “I can’t explain what I feel right now.”
Ansah, though, does plan to let BYU basketball coach Dave Rose know how he feels about being cut from his team twice.
“One thing I’ve got to do when I get back to Utah, I’m going to go to coach Rose. ... and thank him so much for not letting me play,” he said.
Detroit feels fortunate too. The Lions needed a defensive end to play right away and determined the 6-foot-5, 271-pound Ansah can do it despite having just three years of football experience.
If he pans out as a pass-rushing and run-stopping force, Detroit will have gotten something good out of its 4-12 record in 2012 because it gave the franchise an opportunity to spend a week with Ansah on and off the field at the Senior Bowl.
“He has very, very good football instincts, and he’s still new to the game,” Schwartz said. “Probably the best thing that we’ve went through was just getting to know him as a person. The right kind of guy for Detroit, a hardworking humble guy that respects the game and respects what it takes to get here. We were impressed by his seriousness and his work ethic.”
Elizabeth Cole said her son has always been driven to be the best in everything he does in life. He earned an academic scholarship to attend BYU, where he’s an actuarial science major, and has talents that are obvious on the track, soccer fields, and basketball courts.
Cole isn’t surprised at her son’s success, but couldn’t have predicted he would play in the NFL.
“We don’t play football in Africa,” she said, looking and sounding awestruck after her son’s news conference at Lions headquarters. “I didn’t know anything about football. When I’m watching the game, I am only watching Ziggy, not the game because I don’t understand it.”
Ansah moved to the United States in 2008 after some missionaries he befriended suggested he attend BYU and play basketball. He fell short in hoops, ran for the school’s track team, and eventually took the advice of friends and asked Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall for a tryout in 2010.
The Lions took Slay 36th overall, seven spots ahead of teammate Johnthan Banks, who won the Thorpe Award that honors college football’s best defensive back.
The native of Brunswick, Ga., said he probably would’ve been drafted even sooner but an MRI revealed he had a torn meniscus in one of his knees — he wouldn’t say which one on a conference call with Detroit-area reporters — when NFL teams were evaluating him.
“I was told I don’t have to have surgery,” Slay said. “I feel like I’m real good right now.”
The Lions have a spot for the 6-foot, 192-pound Slay to start opposite veteran cornerback Chris Houston.
Slay, the son of two former track athletes, ran a 4.36 40-yard dash at the NFL combine to provide the Lions with another reason to want him on their team.
“They know my size and the speed that I have, being one of the fastest guys at the combine,” he said. “They just said they can do a lot of stuff with my talent.”
Slay had five interceptions, returning one for a touchdown last season, in his second year of playing in the Southeastern Conference after attending junior college.
Detroit might be able to plug the 6-3, 330-pound Warford into the guard spot opposite Rob Sims and next to center Dominic Raiola on a line that will have a pair of first-year starters unless a veteran free agent is signed.
Schwartz joked that Warford’s physique wouldn’t make him a candidate to be a calendar model for the team, but his beefy build is perfect for his position.
Warford, who was born in San Diego, said he attended 13 schools growing up because his father was in the Navy and his parents divorced. He went on to start in 37 games at Kentucky, earning a spot on one of the all-SEC teams in each of his four seasons.
“I’m pretty aggressive,” said Warford, who was drafted 65th overall. “But more than that, I feel like my knowledge of my position and what I’m supposed to do is most important.”