MWC Meets NFL
Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas Cowboys, LB, (Boise State University)
Every good defense seems to contain a big, intimidating linebacker who looks and plays the part of the defensive leader. From Dick Butkus to Ray Lewis, NFL defenses have thrived off having an imposing figure in the middle of their defense. This past NFL draft, the Mountain West Conference might have given the NFL it’s next legendary linebacker.
Leighton Vander Esch is a born and bred Idahoan, playing both his high school and college football in the great state of Idaho. He attended Salmon River High School (yes, that is the most Idaho high school name ever) and played football, basketball and even ran track. Most football teams play with 11 guys, but at Salmon River High Vander Esch graduated in a class of only 11 people. The K-12 school district of Salmon River contains only 125 TOTAL students, so naturally you’d think fielding a football team would be pretty tough. Because of the low enrollment, Vander Esch played 8-man football in high school, doubling as a quarterback and linebacker. He was pretty sensational at both, and was given the 1A Division 2 Player of the Year award for Idaho high school football. For good measure, he also averaged 30 points a game for the basketball team, helping his team win two consecutive state championships. Due to his lack of experience in 11-man football, Vander Esch walked on to Boise State to continue his football career.
After redshirting his freshman year, Vander Esch was used in a reserve role in his first year of action, followed by a sophomore season that was cut short due to a neck injury. Coming back healthy his junior season, he was named a starter and that’s when he began to make his claim as one of the top linebackers in college football. He tallied 141 tackles (fifth in the FBS) and added four sacks, four forced fumbles and two interceptions. Without much doubt, he was named Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, and he decided forgo his senior season and enter the 2018 NFL Draft.
Vander Esch was selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the first round of the draft, at 19th overall. Standing at imposing 6 foot, 4 inches and weighing 256 pounds, Vander Esch is a giant for his position, even among NFL standards. Despite his size, Vander Esch is commended on his ability to play sideline-to-sideline, and his awareness and football smarts allow him to be effective in the passing game. Playing in one of the most physically tough divisions in football, his size and speed will allow him to match up well with running backs like Saquon Barkley and Jay Ajayi, two guys that he will be seeing twice a year for many years to come.
Vander Esch was both blessed and cursed by being drafted by the Cowboys. His draft selection wasn’t exactly a resounding favorite amongst Cowboy faithful, but those fans are also some of the most passionate in the game and if he plays well, especially early on, he will be loved in Dallas. Despite not being listed as a starter on the official Cowboys depth chart, Vander Esch has totaled 22 tackles through the first four games, and his ability to fly around the field and make solid, open-field tackles has already helped bolster his defensive unit. The Cowboys are generally always in the thick of a playoff hunt, and their young offensive unit seems to be getting into midseason form already. Look for Vander Esch to receive more and more playing time as the year progresses, as he will try to fulfill the always vaunted role of an NFL middle linebacker.