Watch Riggins residents celebrate the moment Leighton Vander Esch got drafted by the Cowboys
Salmon River High grad Leighton Vander Esch brought the spotlight to Idaho’s small-town football when the Dallas Cowboys selected him in the first round of last year’s NFL Draft.
Now another native of Idaho’s mountains is set to join him in the NFL.
Porter Gustin starred in four sports at Emmett High before moving to Utah after his sophomore year as a 180-pound, 16-year-old. Six years later, the USC linebacker/edge rusher has built himself into one of the strongest prospects in this week’s NFL Draft and a possible late-round steal.
Two broken bones ended his junior and senior seasons at USC. But the 6-4, 255-pound Gustin proved he’s healthy at last month’s NFL Scouting Combine, running the 40-yard dash in 4.69 seconds and putting up 31 bench presses of 225 pounds, the most among edge rushers and tied for the most among linebackers.
The performance vaulted him up draft boards, where he’s a projected fourth- to seventh-round pick. The draft starts Thursday with the first round and wraps up Saturday with rounds four through seven.
“I think there’s a lot I haven’t been able to show yet with injuries and some things going on,” Gustin told the Idaho Statesman in a phone interview this week. “I wasn’t really able to display everything I’ve improved upon and my abilities. I think I would be a great run stopper, a great pass rusher. I can drop into coverage. I can do it all.
“I’m fired up to go out and prove that.”
IDAHO BORN AND RAISED
Born at St. Luke’s in Downtown Boise, Gustin spent his first years in Meridian before moving to Emmett as a first grader. The family lived 20 to 30 minutes outside of town off the dirt Spring Creek Road above the Black Canyon Diversion Dam, honing Gustin’s love of the mountains.
Gustin’s father, John Gustin, said he and Gustin still return to Idaho to hunt mule deer and elk. And whenever Gustin had a Fourth of July off during college, they retreated to the Sawtooth Mountains. It all fits Gustin’s namesake, Wild West legend Porter Rockwell, known as the “Destroying Angel of Mormondom.”
“He’s a mountain man born 100 years past his time,” John Gustin said. “... Pull up a picture of Porter Rockwell back in the day and him, and you can see the similarities.”
Gustin led Emmett to a Treasure Valley Optimist youth football championship as an 11-year-old before entering high school at 150 pounds. He soon turned heads after adding 30 pounds before his sophomore year, starting as a linebacker, tight end and quarterback for the Huskies’ football team. He also earned second-team All-Idaho honors in basketball, was a second-team all-conference pitcher and ran track on off days.
The family’s ties to Idaho, and its athletic genes, run deep. Gustin’s father graduated from Borah in 1988 before playing quarterback at Wyoming. His mother, Scarlett Overly Gustin, was Idaho’s all-class girls basketball player of the year for Meridian in 1987. And his paternal aunt, Amberli Gustin, won the same award for Borah in 1989.
But Emmett didn’t renew John Gustin’s contract as the school’s boys basketball coach after the 2013 season, even though he earned league coach of the year honors and led the Huskies to what is still their only state tournament win since 2003. So the family moved to Salem Hills, Utah, where Gustin grew into a five-star recruit and signed with USC.
INJURY-PLAGUED COLLEGE CAREER
It didn’t take Gustin long to make an impact at USC, earning a starting spot and All-Pac-12 honorable mention honors as a sophomore. His dominating pass rush, legendary workouts and diet earned him national acclaim. He consumes more than 10,000 calories per day, hasn’t eaten a candy bar in more than a decade and blends all of his meals so he doesn’t waste any time chewing that he could spend in the weight room.
“There’s a reason he looks like a Marvel superhero,” USC coach Clay Helton told Sports Illustrated. “He looks like a cross between Captain America and the Incredible Hulk.”
But injuries derailed a promising career. Gustin broke a toe his junior year when he stubbed it in the weight room, limiting him to four games. He then entered his senior season with the hype of a potential first-round pick only to break an ankle six games into the year.
Gustin also fought through a torn bicep and meniscus his final two seasons. Despite all the injuries, he always produced on the field, racking up 10 sacks in 10 games, including seven in six games as a senior.
Questions about his durability have swirled leading up to the draft. But Gustin points out the broken bones are the only ones to keep him off the field. And only one was a football injury.
“When it comes down to it, I only got the one injury,” Gustin said. “It’s a bone injury, so I missed six games. It takes awhile to heal, but when it heals, it heals 100 percent and fully back, unlike ligaments or tendons.”
Gustin’s raw strength, intensity and work ethic have made him a popular late-round steal among NFL Draft projections. All note his injury history hurts his draft stock. But it only takes one team to roll the dice on an athletic marvel and elite pass rusher with the versatility to play as a defensive end, an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme or even a stacked linebacker in a 3-3-5 defense.
His times in the three-cone drill (6.97 seconds), 20-yard shuttle (4.22) and 60-yard shuttle (11.84) at USC’s pro day all would have ranked among the top four edge defenders at the combine.
“Injuries have prevented Gustin from properly developing at the collegiate level, but he offers great upside with his natural tools,” Pro Football Focus wrote. “He earned pass-rush win rates above 15% in each of the last two seasons of his Trojans career.”
But for now, Gustin can only wait for his phone to ring this weekend. He answered every question about his health and submitted to every test, scan and MRI to show that he’s fully healthy.
He said he has no idea when or where he’ll go. He doesn’t have any plans for a draft day blowout. He’ll just wait for a team to call his name, then get back to work.
“It’s tough to tell as far as projections with the injury past that I’ve had,” Gustin said. “It’s going to be interesting to see where I go and see if teams are willing to look past that.
“But I’m confident whenever I go, wherever I go, it doesn’t matter. As long as I get on a team and get an opportunity, I’ll make the best of it.”