Kids from small towns across the country dream of their shot to play in the NFL, but it is an opportunity that very few get to realize. Leighton Vander Esch has that chance.
Growing up in Riggins and playing 8-man football at Salmon River High, Vander Esch walked on at Boise State, the school where he always wanted to play.
Following a dominant junior season, the linebacker announced Thursday on Twitter that he will forgo his final season of eligibility to enter the draft.
“It has been the honor of my life,” Vander Esch wrote of playing at Boise State, noting that he now has “a chance to chase and fulfill something that no one expects out of someone from small-town Idaho.”
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Vander Esch was the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year this season, and he capped off his Boise State career with 12 tackles (three for loss, one sack) in the Las Vegas Bowl.
He finished the 2017 season with 141 tackles (most at Boise State in a season since 1988), including 8.5 for loss and four sacks. He added three interceptions and three forced fumbles. According to Pro Football Focus, he finished tied for the nation’s best run-stop percentage among draft-eligible inside linebackers.
“He’s given everything you could ask for to this program,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said.
Vander Esch was one of the Broncos’ three season-long captains, joining wide receiver Cedrick Wilson and quarterback Brett Rypien. With the NFL decision looming, he was not going to make a decision before the bowl game, with Harsin saying, “That’s the thing about Leighton, he’s not a distraction.”
Harsin said he believes Vander Esch has very similar skills to another former Bronco from a small Idaho town, Shea McClellin, who went 19th overall in the 2012 draft. Colorado State coach Mike Bobo said in November that Vander Esch was “a next-level player, reminds me of the kid from Carolina (Luke Kuechly).” Kuechly was a first-rounder and has been voted into the last five Pro Bowls.
Bleacher Report lead NFL Draft writer Matt Miller thinks Vander Esch is a first- or second-rounder.
“Top 50 player here. Way under the radar nationally. Love his game. Didn’t expect he’d declare, but he’ll be on my next rankings update,” Miller tweeted.
It is unlikely Vander Esch stays under the radar for long. Harsin said the linebacker’s “intangibles are through the roof” and the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Vander Esch is “a first-round talent.”
The school’s highest-drafted linebacker was Tanner Vallejo in April by the Bills in the sixth round. Former Broncos linebacker Korey Hall also was a sixth-round pick, but he played fullback in the NFL.
“(Vander Esch) loves his teammates, he loves this program, but there’s no doubt he’s going to dominate his testing, he’s going to dominate the combine and put himself in position to be one of the top (linebackers) in the draft,” Harsin said.
The Salmon River High graduate surely will put a spotlight on his hometown. Residents from there travel to Boise State games in a personalized bus. His story is similar to some of the past successes for the Broncos, such as McClellin (Marsing) and center Matt Paradis (Council), who tweeted, “Congrats!! Representing 8 man Idaho football and Boise State!!”
Wilson had nothing but praise for Vander Esch after the Broncos’ Las Vegas Bowl victory.
“He turns his motor on as soon as we walk into the locker room for warmups and his motor doesn’t turn off till he gets on the bus,” Wilson said. “He’s just a great player, and I hope the best for him whatever his decision is going to be.”
According to Boise State’s sports information department, the Broncos are one of only 10 programs in the country with an opportunity to have an early entrant selected in every draft from 2014 to 2018.
Even with Vander Esch’s departure, the Broncos’ defense is expected to return the other 10 starters from this season’s squad.
“Our responsibility is to take care of these guys,” Harsin said. “We love Leighton, and it’s an opportunity he can’t pass up. If he has a chance to go chase his dreams, we’re right behind him.”
Said Vander Esch on Thursday afternoon on 93.1 KTIK FM: “I’m just getting started. ... This is going to be amazing.”
Harsin said a goal of the 19-member class that signed Wednesday during the early signing period was to add length, noting that no signee is listed as being shorter than 6 feet tall. The first-of-its-kind signing day was beneficial to the Broncos, as Harsin said he wasn’t sure the team might have just a half-dozen signees.
“Two weeks ago, I didn’t like it. ... After yesterday, we’re really fired up. Right now, I like it,” Harsin said.
He said “the No. 1 discussion” at next month’s national coaches convention will be the early period. Harsin expects it to be around next year, too, even though Alabama coach Nick Saban is an outspoken critic. “Nick Saban doesn’t like it, so it’s not permanent,” Harsin joked.
On Thursday evening, former Boise State quarterback commit Zach Wilson, who decommitted last week after being committed since the summer, signed with BYU. Wilson, from Draper, Utah, plans to enroll next month. The Cougars and Broncos play annually through 2023.
Boise State’s early entrants in NFL Draft
2008: OT Ryan Clady, first round
2008: CB Orlando Scandrick, fifth round
2009: WR Jeremy Childs, undrafted
2014: DE DeMarcus Lawrence, second round
2015: RB Jay Ajayi, fifth round
2016: DE/LB Kamalei Correa, second round
2017: RB Jeremy McNichols, fifth round
2018: LB Leighton Vander Esch