Boise State has used six players at its two linebacker spots this season in part because coaches have opted for a three-linebacker look against certain run-heavy offenses, like the one the Broncos will face from UNLV on Saturday.
The rotation also allows the Broncos to utilize the third-teamers at what probably is the deepest position on the team.
The group of proven performers and up-and-coming playmakers includes the guys ranked second on the team in tackles (junior Ben Weaver, 43), fourth (sophomore Joe Martarano, 29), fifth (junior Tanner Vallejo, 28), sixth (senior Tyler Gray, 27) and tied for 16th (redshirt freshman Leighton Vander Esch and junior Darren Lee, 13 each).
"We've got very good players in there," coach Bryan Harsin said. "Their preparation, their mentality -- just the focus they have -- it's a different deal. That's a special group."
Vander Esch, because of the three-linebacker plan, and Lee, because of an injury to Vallejo, played more than usual last week against Wyoming. Each was productive -- a fact linebackers coach Andy Avalos says is attributable to the chemistry in his group.
"It starts with them, who they are as people," Avalos said. "You've got a lot of pretty smart guys in there. Guys that are willing to put the team in front of themselves. I get more questions about who gets to play how much from the outside and from (the media) than I do from them. The coolest thing about them is, it doesn't matter, it could be Tyler Gray and Ben Weaver together. It could be Joey and Tanner together in there watching and studying and sharing things they've seen, because they want each other to do well when they get in there.
"Our deal is to take care of each other, and they do a pretty good job doing that."
Below is more on Vander Esch:
The former walk-on from Salmon River High in Riggins, listed at 6-foot-4, 234 pounds, continues to put on weight as he makes the transformation from eight-man football to college football.
Vander Esch -- put on scholarship earlier this year -- is a significant contributor on special teams who has received more snaps on defense recently.
“He’s off to a really good start,” Avalos said. “The guy puts a smile on my face in what he’s doing and how he’s working. ... The other linebackers in the room are helping bring him along. Everybody loves him and he’s just a really hard worker. It’s cool to see that pay off -- get a little early taste of what it’s like to get in there and do it.”
Said Vander Esch: “It’s pretty fun. It’s hard to describe, just getting out there this early -- it’s a pretty neat deal. I’m enjoying it a lot. I’m having a blast. Obviously I’ve got to improve quite a bit still.”
One of the bigger adjustments for Vander Esch is learning how to absorb and implement the game plan. He also has to force himself to eat even when he isn’t hungry to try to grow into the large frame that got Avalos’ interest in recruiting -- not only is he tall, but he has huge hands.
Avalos has called him a “baby giraffe.”
“You knew at some point he had to grow into that thing,” Avalos said.
Gaining weight wasn’t easy for Vander Esch, but seeing the results motivates him to keep trying.
“It was a long year this last year,” he said. “But now, seeing how much it’s helped me, it makes me want to do it that much more. ... Putting on 30 pounds in this last year, year and a half, I can’t be moved around as much as I used to. I can actually hit people instead of getting hit.”
The bulk of Vander Esch’s meaningful playing time this season still has come on special teams.
“It gave me more feel of how the game was going to be compared to high school,” he said. “... It gave me the base of ‘this is where the game is at’ and ‘this is where I need to get to.’ ”
He didn’t expect to play this much on defense, he said, because of the veteran core ahead of him.
“I’m just pretty much focusing on getting myself better and just trying to follow in their footsteps,” he said. “I love watching them play. They’re all great athletes.
“... I really enjoy the linebacker group. I consider every single one of them my brother.”
Boise State at UNLV
When: 1:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Sam Boyd Stadium (35,500, Sprinturf)
TV: ESPNU (Clay Matvick, John Congemi)
Radio: KBOI (670 AM), KTIK (93.1 FM); Bob Behler, Pete Cavender
Records: Boise State is 6-2, 3-1 Mountain West; UNLV is 2-5, 1-2.
Series: Boise State leads 5-3 (Broncos won 32-7 in 2012 in Boise).