Boise State Football

Who will replace Vander Esch at Boise State? Spring game will provide a glimpse.

Boise State LB Riley Whimpey eager to help fill Vander Esch’s shoes

Boise State sophomore linebacker Riley Whimpey talks about playing as a true freshman and his opportunity for an expanded role this season.
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Boise State sophomore linebacker Riley Whimpey talks about playing as a true freshman and his opportunity for an expanded role this season.

Losing just one full-time starter from your defense? That’s good.

But if that player is the best one? That’s bad — usually.

Boise State’s defense is facing a unique challenge this offseason, returning a bulk of its production but needing to find a way to make up for linebacker Leighton Vander Esch’s absence. For a player who was so productive in so many ways — and is a projected NFL first-round draft pick — it probably won’t be just one guy.

“Right now, it’s hard to do,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “Sometimes one player does make a difference, and he certainly did. We have other guys that are going to step up. Leighton wasn’t a starter until this last year, and he stepped up. We have guys that can do that, but really it’s about our entire defense.”

The weakside linebacker led the team in tackles and forced fumbles, tied for the lead in interceptions, was second in tackles for loss and was third in sacks.

That’s a tall task for a new starter to even somewhat replace, but it’s not like the Broncos have never been tasked with replacing high-production defenders. There’s confidence that not only will the returning starters do their part, but so will whoever takes over at Vander Esch’s spot.

“I’m ready for the next guy,” senior cornerback Tyler Horton said. “That spot’s open, and they know it’s big shoes to fill, but one thing I know, whoever gets that spot, they’re going to make the most of it. I’m excited to see who exactly is going to get it.”

There is no shortage of candidates — senior Blake Whitlock, who made five starts in 2016 before redshirting last season with an injury, is getting back to health. Sophomore Bruno DeRose saw time in all 14 games last season, while freshman Ezekiel Noa redshirted last season recovering from a torn ACL but had the talent to play right away if not for that.

Sophomore Riley Whimpey could be the most likely, playing in 12 games last season as a true freshman behind Vander Esch, making 17 tackles (one for loss). He’s eager to have the opportunity to step in at a position that allows plenty of plays to be made.

“It’s exciting. I’m a competitive guy, I love to work hard, and we’ll see where that hard work puts me in the rest of spring and into fall,” Whimpey said.

Harsin used a short, sweet rhyme when summing up Whimpey, saying “we think very highly of Riley.” Coming off a two-year church mission, Whimpey (6-foot-1, 207 pounds) was able to work out with his two older brothers, former twin offensive linemen at Utah State, to get his strength back.

“I feel like I’m a quick linebacker, I’m not the biggest linebacker, but growing up around two college offensive linemen, I’m not too afraid to go against them,” Whimpey said.

Whether it is Whimpey, Whitlock, DeRose, Noa, or some surprise name, Boise State isn’t lacking for options. There are also combinations that can involve STUD ends, nickels, strongside linebackers and more that won’t put all the pressure on just one position. But Harsin said he’s liked what he has seen from the weakside competitors.

“They’re making the plays they’re for the most part supposed to make,” Harsin said. “The position itself, I’ve seen a lot of production from it this spring. Who’s it going to be? Don’t know.”

Even if his statistical void is one that will remain a major question, Vander Esch’s lasting impact on the guys who worked behind him could be the standard he set.

“It was a great opportunity to be able to play behind Leighton. … He taught me what it meant to be a Bronco,” Whimpey said. “Being able to compete with him really made me become a better player.”

Dave Southorn: 208-377-6420, @davesouthorn

Spring game information

The football team’s spring game will be held at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Albertsons Stadium. Tickets are $10, all general admission, and can be purchased at the Athletic Ticket Office that day, or at The team will be split into two squads. The first half will consist of two 10-minute quarters with regular timing. The second half will have 8-minute quarters and a running clock.

Free parking is available across campus, with the exception of the West Stadium Lot, which will be reserved for Stueckle Sky Center guests. The Sky Center will open at 1:30 p.m., and the main stadium gates will open at 2:15 p.m. Also, 2018 schedule posters will be available for the first 5,000 fans.

Following the game, access to the Blue will be available to all attendees.

Before the game, the 2018 Hall of Fame class will be recognized. Boise State will hold its annual gear sale at the Allen Noble Hall of Fame from noon to 2 p.m. for BAA members, and to the general public starting at 2 p.m. Fans also may tailgate at DeChevrieux Field and check out 2018 season tailgating options.