From Riggins, Idaho to America’s Team: Leighton Vander Esch reflects on his journey
When Leighton Vander Esch gets the start at weakside linebacker, the Dallas Cowboys are 6-1 this season, including four straight wins.
With veteran Pro-Bowler Sean Lee in the Cowboys’ starting lineup, Dallas has gone just 1-4.
Apparently Cowboys owner Jerry Jones doesn’t care much for statistics.
“(Vander Esch) is improving,” Jones said during his weekly Tuesday appearance on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas, via the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “But Sean Lee, make no mistake about it, when he’s right, there’s nobody better. He’s such an integral part of adjusting on the field and making the big play.
“And then you look at what we’ve got in (middle linebacker Jaylon) Smith, you just have to have those guys out there on the field. It’s a great problem to have.”
After missing the last four games with a hamstring injury and seven games total this season, Lee could return as early as this Sunday against Philadelphia.
And Jones believes Lee should get the start over Vander Esch.
“Yes and he needs to be. You’ll have a rotation but certainly with a player of his stature and you ask, ‘Has he earned it?’ I said the other day that Sean has had as much to do with how Vander Esch has evolved as his coaches have,” Jones said. “He’s an outstanding individual to have in the meeting room and on the field. When you get him in the game he is that much more a quarterback on the field. So he creates a wonderful situation for us when he is healthy. We are all going to look at the idea of not rushing him back. We want to be careful about not getting him back too fast.”
In place of Lee, Vander Esch has made a team-leading 102 tackles this season, which also ranks No. 4 overall in the NFL. The rookie out of Boise State has played well enough to put his name in the conversation for defensive rookie of the year honors.
Vander Esch, nicknamed the Wolf Hunter, led the Cowboys defense with 10 tackles in a 13-10 win over the New Orleans Saints on Thursday, and he debuted his celebratory wolf howl.
“I got so hyped when Leighton got the tackle and he did the wolf howl,” Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott told the Star-Telegram. “It gave me chills, man. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.”
Analyst Troy Aikman had high praise for the Vander Esch during Thursday’s television broadcast.
“I think Leighton Vander Esch is destined to be one of the all-time greats,” Aikman said. “I really do. You talk about a guy at 255 pounds and he runs a 4.6-second 40-yard dash. He’s big, physical and he can run, and he matches up against tight ends. I watched him last week match up against Atlanta and the job he’s able to do, he’s an old-school linebacker in size and new school in his ability to cover and run.”
During several postgame TV interviews this season, Vander Esch has deferred credit for his performance to Lee’s guidance.
“I couldn’t be more blessed to have a guy like (Lee) to play with, to lead that linebacker room,” Vander Esch told the NFL Network last Thursday. “I gotta give so much credit to him and how much he’s helped me develop on and off the field.”
With Lee expected to return soon, the Cowboys currently lead the NFC East by one game over the Redskins.
“It motivates me to get back, because I want to be part of such a great group — not only the defense, but with a linebacker crew that’s playing the way they are,” Lee told DallasCowboys.com. “That’s a dream for me, to be able to play in a group like this. I’ve worked toward this for a lot of years, so being able to be part of this is something I want — especially with an opportunity to go to the playoffs.”
Three former BSU players added to active rosters
▪ Running back Jeremy McNichols was added to the Tennessee Titans’ active roster on Monday. McNichols had been on the Denver Broncos’ practice squad since October.
▪ Cornerback Jamar Taylor signed with the Denver Broncos on Tuesday. Taylor began the season with Arizona, where he started three games, but he was cut by the Cardinals on Nov. 20.
▪ Offensive lineman Rees Odhiambo is expected to sign with the Arizona Cardinals after left guard Mike Iupati — a former Idaho Vandal — was placed on injured reserve with a left knee injury. Odhiambo had been on the Indianapolis Colts’ practice squad.