Boise State Football

After fantastic first season as starter, Boise State’s Vander Esch will weigh NFL future

Boise State LB Leighton Vander Esch 'silenced doubters' in MW championship

Boise State junior linebacker Leighton Vander Esch talks about facing Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl, his possible NFL future and more.
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Boise State junior linebacker Leighton Vander Esch talks about facing Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl, his possible NFL future and more.

Leighton Vander Esch is not ready to talk about it, but the discussion will be had.

Boise State’s standout junior linebacker, the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, likely will be an NFL draft pick. The question is whether that will happen in 2018 or 2019.

Vander Esch said last week when the subject was broached, “I really don’t want to talk about it right now,” and coach Bryan Harsin said it hasn’t been a topic brought up between the two.

“We haven’t sat down,” Harsin said. “That’s the thing about Leighton, he’s not a distraction. He’s not going to have that conversation right now. He’s going to go prepare himself like any other game. ... At the end of the year, when the (bowl) game’s over, we’ll probably sit down and decide what’s best for him.”

It has been a meteoric rise for Vander Esch, who perhaps could get a little more national buzz in Saturday’s Las Vegas Bowl against Oregon. Though his name isn’t quite a hot one yet for the draftniks, NFL scouts are well aware of the former walk-on from Salmon River High.

“Leighton’s a very good player, got the height, weight, the speed, he’s productive, he’s got great length,” one NFL scout told the Idaho Statesman. “He sounds like he’s a great kid, too. He has all the measurables you want. He’s got a lot of upside, a very good prospect.”

The scout said Vander Esch (6-foot-4, 240 pounds), who plays the weakside spot for the Broncos, could play inside or outside at the next level.

Tony Pauline from pegs Vander Esch as a second-rounder, calling him “a special player,” and has him the No. 14 outside linebacker among draft-eligible prospects.

“Being a walk-on, to play himself into that talk at all is incredible for a guy from Riggins, Idaho,” junior quarterback and fellow captain Brett Rypien said. “He’s got the physical abilities. He’s taken full advantage. When you’re built like that and you mix it with hard work, you get that chance to be a high pick either this (draft) or next.”

Factors for Vander Esch to consider certainly will include where he projects to be taken, the toll a season can take on a linebacker and the fact that he’s started for only one college season.

Vander Esch, who has 129 tackles (5.5 for loss), three sacks, three interceptions and three forced fumbles, opts to defer any credit to those around him when reflecting on his outstanding junior season.

“Because I couldn’t have done this without my teammates and coaches. It’s not just me. I’m just going to leave it at that,” he said.

Oregon senior offensive tackle Tyrell Crosby, an NFL prospect himself, said Vander Esch has caught his eye when studying the Boise State defense.

“The kid knows football, he’s very talented ... knows where to be, when to be there. I have a lot of respect for him,” Crosby said.

If Saturday proves to be the final game in a Boise State uniform for Vander Esch, he should be a poster boy for the program — unheralded and skinny when he arrived, a backup who missed half of last season, he took advantage of his shot this year.

“I think that (patience) shows up,” Harsin said. “To me, it’s really the classic story of put in the time, put in the work, you get your foot in the door, you get an opportunity. He took advantage of it, and now he’s put himself in position to be one of the best in the country.

“Nobody deserves it more than him. He’s not lucky, he’s a hard worker. ... He’s like that every single day and he gets better every single week.”

There were some detractors after Vander Esch was named defensive player of the year, though their numbers shrank after he had 16 tackles and a game-clinching interception against Fresno State in the Mountain West championship game. Surely, there might be some doubts about how the Broncos can handle the Ducks, and there will be whenever Vander Esch looks to the NFL.

But when asked about how he’s finishing the regular season, Vander Esch said that can be measured only by what he did, and will do, on the field.

“Gotta silence the doubters somehow,” he said.

Dave Southorn: 208-377-6420, @davesouthorn

Las Vegas Bowl

Who: Boise State (10-3) vs. Oregon (7-5)

When: 1:30 p.m. MT Saturday

Where: Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas (35,500, Sprinturf)

TV: ABC (Rece Davis, Kirk Herbstreit, Molly McGrath)

Radio: KBOI 670 AM/KTIK 93.1 FM (Bob Behler, Pete Cavender)

Vegas line: Oregon by 7

Tickets: $81.75 apiece at, the Athletic Ticket Office or via phone at 208-426-4737.