During the months since Leighton Vander Esch declared for the NFL entry draft, his chance to ascend from Salmon River High School and Boise State University to football’s top professional level has become a conversation starter in Idaho County — and not just among local football fans.
A man Riggins people have known since boyhood has the town walking tall — and they’re paying a lot of attention to what national sports media figures are saying about him.
Vander Esch’s most ardent supporters — his family, and a significant percentage of the people who live in the town — famously took a charter bus emblazoned with his image and BSU colors to Broncos games. Now, with heavy-hitting NFL talent experts dropping Vander Esch’s name left and right — most recently, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. and NFL Media’s Mike Mayock — they’re jumping on the hype train.
All aboard. Next stop, Indianapolis.
Kiper and Mayock have Vander Esch ranked among the top defenders in the draft, with Kiper estimating Vander Esch could go late in the first round and Mayock listing him third among inside linebackers, behind Tremaine Edmunds out of Virginia Tech and Roquan Smith out of Georgia. Another NFL.com draft analyst — Lance Zierlein, who wrote the profiles that topped Google searches for each of the three as of Feb. 26 — pegged Edmunds and Smith in the first round, and Vander Esch in the first or second.
Teams faced with ranking these players may rely on their own private expertise, but the small differences of opinion among public experts point to why the combine exists: Even among those equipped to put every player’s every play under a microscope, grading football performance involves a whole bunch of subjective judgments. The combine recasts each player’s athletic gifts as a set of hard numbers, creating elements of objectivity where there would otherwise be only what trained eyes could glean from game tapes, which are riddled with complications.
Like every other NFL prospect, Vander Esch knows the measurables matter, and in a phone interview with the Free Press earlier this month, he said he’s focusing on his training and setting the hype aside.
ICFP: There’s a lot of hype. What do you think about it?
LVE: “It’s pretty neat, but I still need to go in and do what I need to do. I’m not paying attention to the hype. I’ve just got to live up to it.”
ICFP: How do you keep it in perspective?
LVE: “It’s taking it a day at a time. Not getting too far ahead of myself. Controlling what I can control right now. Sitting back and relaxing and taking it all in, and knowing what I have to do to get everything done.”
ICFP: What’s your routine like? How are you going after it?
LVE: “We’re working out the majority of the day every single day. Sunday is our only day off. Going into it, I’m staying humble and working as hard as I can to make sure I improve every single day.”
ICFP: Probably everybody who reads what we write already knows you accomplished a ton at Boise State. Have you reflected much on your college football days yet?
LVE: “I don’t think it has hit me I’m done with college already, that I’ve moved on from that. I’ve got a lot to look forward to in the future, and it was always my biggest dream — I’m thankful for every single bit of it…and I’ll have those memories for the rest of my life.”
ICFP: Who was the toughest player you ever faced? What makes him that?
LVE: “Probably the quarterback from Wyoming, Josh Allen. He’s super athletic. He’s everything you’d want at the quarterback position, in my opinion. He can run, he can do everything, he’s big, he moves and feels pressure in the pocket very well. He’s hard to bring down. He’s a big guy. … He’s got great arm strength. He can get the ball pretty much anywhere he wants to get it.”
ICFP: Who was the most underrated guy on your team?
LVE: “Probably Sam Whitney. If you turn on the tape and you watch him, on the boundary side with me, he’s the stud outside linebacker to my side — I mean, someone might overlook him, but that kid for his size and strength, it’s phenomenal what he can get done. I loved playing on the side of the field with him, because he’s super physical and can set edges and he’s always going to get good leverage on you.”
ICFP: Is there any one play that stands out to you as the most memorable one you ever made at BSU?
LVE: “Probably the game-clinching interception at the end of the Mountain West championship game this year.”
ICFP: If you were to compare your play to anyone in the NFL, who would it be and why?
LVE: “I’d say Kuechly, Luke Kuechly with the Panthers. I’ve watched a little bit of his film and taken certain things from him that he does. But he just hustles and he’s always around the ball. I know he’s always going to give it his all and I’m always going to give it my all.”
ICFP: Who is your role model and why?
LVE: “Role model, as in on what level?”
ICFP: You can take it whatever direction you want to go with it. Someone who has had leadership in your life, in football things, or beyond that.
LVE: “Definitely Avalos, the linebackers and defensive coordinator at Boise. He’s the one that recruited me out of high school and that sparked any interest Boise had in me. He’s the one that gave me the shot to go prove myself. He stuck with me, and he knew what my potential could be. He pushed me every single day and never let me slough off…always to become the best I could be.”
ICFP: Have any thoughts you’d like to share with people who look up to you?
LVE: “Don’t believe it if anybody tells you you can’t do anything. That’s the main thing. I’ve had so many people my whole entire life who told me I couldn’t do this or that because of where I’m from. Don’t ever let anybody tell you you can’t achieve your dream. Just go after it with everything you have, if you really want to do it.”
The NFL combine began Feb. 27 and continues this week through March 5, with linebackers scheduled for on-field workouts Sunday, March 4. Details are online at nfl.com/network/combine. The draft is scheduled April 26-28, and is set to be televised on ESPN and FOX.