Bronco Beat

‘That guy is our best player’: Boise State LB Vander Esch primed for big year

Boise State’s football facility can be a secretive place, its own little island on campus, but there is one thing that no one is shy to disclose: Junior linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is expected to have a big year.

The Riggins native and Salmon River High graduate has 47 career tackles, a sack and an interception. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, he should make his first career start Sept. 2 against Troy at Albertsons Stadium at the weakside spot occupied recently by Ben Weaver and Tyler Gray.

“He’s definitely going to be a breakout guy for us,” junior quarterback Brett Rypien said. “He’s a freak athletic talent. I don’t think he’s got to showcase really all he can do quite yet because he’s battled some injuries.”

Limited to six games last season because of a concussion, the 6-foot-4, 242-pound Vander Esch finished with a fury, with 15 tackles (two for loss) and his first career interception in the final two games of the season.

He isn’t shying away from those new expectations.

“My attitude ... I feel I’ve always attacked everything that’s been put in front of me,” Vander Esch said. “But now, it’s like, I have to, it’s time. I can’t sit back, I have to take initiative and be the kind of leader I wanted to follow when I was a young guy.”

The potential was always there, but it was not a leap to know that Vander Esch’s college football breakthrough might take some time.

Vander Esch was a quarterback on an 8-man football squad in high school and averaged nearly 30 points per game in basketball. He started out as a walk-on, redshirted in 2014 and earned a scholarship the following spring. He needed to add weight, to be more than the “baby giraffe” defensive coordinator Andy Avalos once called him. In three years, he’s put on 40 pounds.

“That guy is our best player, I’d say, on our team right now,” Rypien said. “Not only is he our best player, but I think he’s probably our hardest worker as well ... he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with the next couple of years.”

Coaches know that Vander Esch’s athleticism and size can allow for all sorts of twists defensively, and it will be needed on a unit that lost seven starters. Of the players currently listed at linebacker, Vander Esch’s tackle total of 47 tops the list.

Vander Esch has made it a point, now that his weight is where he had hoped, to get stronger, which he hopes enables him to be a force.

“That was probably the toughest six or seven weeks of my life, honestly,” Vander Esch said about his missed time last season. “I think about how hard that was, but I kind of look at it as a growing experience.”

Being a reliable, inspiring presence in summer workouts is nice, and Vander Esch said he soon hopes to be a leader in the most literal sense off the field: He wants to guide the linebackers on a whitewater rafting tour this summer in Riggins.

Dave Southorn: 208-377-6420, @davesouthorn