Freshman linebacker Leighton Vander Esch told Boise State football coach Bryan Harsin in an evaluation meeting last spring that he planned to commute home to Riggins on weekends over the summer to work as a raft guide.
Harsin told him not to bother. He was putting Vander Esch on scholarship.
“I just didn’t know what to say after that,” Vander Esch said Monday, telling the story during his first media availability as a Bronco. “I went kind of blank for 30 seconds. ... It’s a great opportunity, but I’ve still got to do what I’ve been doing — work as hard as I can and not take anything for granted.”
The rest of the linebackers were waiting outside Harsin’s door when the meeting ended. They poured into the office and gave hugs to the walk-on who linebackers coach Andy Avalos calls a “baby giraffe.”
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The Broncos’ older linebackers — they have four with extensive experience on defense and a fifth who is one of the top special-teamers — have served as mentors for Vander Esch.
“We’re deep at linebacker,” he said. “We’ve got four or five older guys that are there, and they want to see you succeed, too, just like they are. Doing what they do every single day, just following them, taking their advice, not blowing them off — that’s the biggest thing. When you’re young, you have to look for that person or the veterans that you can just tuck under and stay under their wing so they can teach you and show you what you need to do to get better.”
Vander Esch, in turn, already has started helping the Broncos’ newcomers.
“He’s just gotten so much better. It’s unbelievable,” junior starting linebacker Ben Weaver said. “... After this summer, you could see him grow as a leader and teaching some of the young guys. It’s pretty fun to watch.”
Vander Esch helped Salmon River High win back-to-back state titles in football and basketball during his last two years of high school. He was a state player of the year in both sports.
He said he needed humility to make the transition from toast of the town in Riggins to anonymous walk-on in Boise.
“Coming from a small town and doing the things that my team and I did in high school, now it doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “That stuff was the world to me when I was in high school, but now as soon as I graduated, I had to forget about that and start over.”
Vander Esch, who played quarterback in high school, has put on about 30 pounds since joining the Broncos. He is 6-foot-4, 234 pounds.
That’ll be another pinch-me moment.
“My whole entire life, I’ve wanted to play college football at Boise State,” Vander Esch said.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: DEVAN DEMAS
Demas’ rushing stats hint that he could be the most explosive option in the Broncos’ crowded tailback competition.
The junior has carried 46 times for 298 yards during his college career, an average of 6.5 yards per carry. He also is the team’s fastest player, running the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds.
But perhaps what isn’t there is more telling: a catch.
“I’ve just got to be better in the pass game, be better recognizing blitzes,” Demas said. “... If you can’t block and protect the quarterback, they’re not going to put you on the field. That’s really the key to it.”
Demas (5-foot-8, 175 pounds) is the Broncos’ lightest tailback by 16 pounds. But he did get stronger over the summer, he said, which should help him in pass protection. He also was hindered the past two years by the presence of star Jay Ajayi, who took so many snaps that the backups weren’t on the field much.
Coaches want the explosive element Demas brings. They also point out the importance of ball security. Demas lost two fumbles in the Spring Game.
“If he breaks free, no one is going to catch him,” coach Bryan Harsin said. “He’s got that ability, but he’s got to break free. ... Consistency is what it comes down to. Who’s out there performing day to day? That’s usually going to be the player who starts for us.”
BRONCOS IN THE NFL: CENTER MATT PARADIS
All signs point to former Boise State center Matt Paradis starting at center for the Denver Broncos this season and snapping the ball to Peyton Manning.
Paradis, who was on the practice squad last year as a rookie, started the preseason opener last week against the Seahawks. And coach Gary Kubiak’s early reviews were glowing.
“I really like Matt. Matt ran the group well,” Kubiak said, according to ESPN.com. “He went out there and got them on the right people and made the calls. I will go back and look at it, but for the first night out, you have to feel good about it.’’
Paradis would be one of the least likely starters in the NFL.
He walked on at Boise State as a defensive lineman after playing eight-man football at Council High and growing up working on the family cattle ranch. He moved to offense in 2010 and started in 2012-13.
“If there is anyone who epitomizes Boise State football, it’s a guy like Matt Paradis,” then-interim Boise State coach Bob Gregory said in 2013. “He’s hard-working, tough, smart ... he certainly will leave a legacy here.”