Leighton Vander Esch did everything but drive the bus at Boise State last season.
The big linebacker left that duty to his father, Derwin.
Looking for a way to make the three-hour trek from the tiny town of Riggins, Idaho, to Boise more entertaining, Derwin bought an old motor coach, and with the help of family and friends, he customized it.
They tore out some seats, added a couch and stove, painted it orange and blue, and adorned the sides and front with the family name and Leighton’s No. 38. When he was done, Derwin invited anyone from Riggins (population: 420ish) to hop on the Vander Esch Express.
He had plenty of company on his rides. The bus even made it to the Broncos’ last two bowl games in Phoenix and Las Vegas.
“Honestly, I thought my dad was crazy for doing it at first, but it turned out cool,” said Leighton. “The support system in Riggins is second to none. The people there, I absolutely love them. They support me through everything, through thick and thin.
“I’ve got to give it to them, because without them, it would be hard to do what I’m doing. I love every single one of them. I love going back and catching up with everybody. It just makes it that much better when you can get extra people from the town and all my family and friends to make it to the game on the bus.’’
In Boise, they’ve been watching the real live version of the Vander Esch Express develop from walk-on to starter to probable first-round draft pick. It’s been quite a journey for a kid who never played 11-man football until he arrived on campus. In Idaho, most schools play the eight-man version of the sport because of a lack of numbers.
Though it might have seemed like a disadvantage, Vander Esch believes playing eight-man actually was instrumental in him getting an opportunity to excel at this level.
“You’ve got to be a well-rounded player,” he said. “You’re playing both sides of the ball. Not that 11-man players don’t play both sides, but I think it definitely helps with the speed of the game being able to open-field tackle. Those are important aspects of the game, and you’ve got to be able to do everything. You’ve got to have dynamic players that can play everywhere.’’
Vander Esch’s journey to Boise began his junior year at Salmon River High when he met with Broncos defensive coordinator Andy Avalos, who invited him to attend the school’s camp.
“So I went to the summer camp before my senior year, got on film, did some drills for him, ran through linebacker, tight end, and quarterback [drills],’’ he said. “I played my senior year, played in the championship on Boise State’s field, so that was pretty neat getting to play there for the first time, then I got offered a preferred walk-on position at linebacker. There was no way I was turning that down. I always wanted to play there. It wasn’t even a decision for me.’’
After redshirting as a freshman, Vander Esch began showing flashes of brilliance as a part-time player in his second year. He was poised for a breakout season as a redshirt sophomore but injuries limited him to six games and prevented him putting his stamp on the defense. That came this past season.
Vander Esch was credited with 141 tackles (91 solo), including 8.5 for losses, 4 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and 2 interceptions.
Because of his exceptional instincts, athleticism, and speed, the 6-foot-4-inch, 256-pound Vander Esch (he played at 240 last season but has bulked up since) can fit into just about any defensive scheme.
He played a lot of weak-side linebacker at Boise State, but was moved around a lot by Avalos to put him in advantageous spots. No matter where he lined up, he found the ball in a heartbeat.
Vander Esch excels at slipping blocks at the line of scrimmage, shooting through gaps, and making first contact in the backfield.
The former high school basketball standout believes his range is what sets him apart from others in his class.
“I feel like I cover the field really well; I’m always around the ball,’’ he said. “I’m always going to put myself in position to be around the ball. We took great pride in that at Boise State, being relentless finishers and making sure we always ran to the ball.’’
Though he made his bones defending the run and making plays at the line of scrimmage, Vander Esch said he’s “super comfortable” in coverage.
“I take tremendous pride in going into one-on-one matchups against the back or the tight end,’’ he said. “That doesn’t scare me one bit. I look forward to it. I want to be put in that position.’’
Questions have swirled recently about Vander Esch’s health. He played with a neck guard in college, and NFL Media’s Mike Mayock said it’s because he has a cervical issue. He was not flagged at the Combine so it’ll be up to teams to do their due diligence on his medicals.
With his combination of instincts, intelligence, versatility, and physicality, Vander Esch would seem to be a perfect fit with the Patriots, who had him in for a visit this past weekend. Brian Flores could move him around to a variety of spots, much the way Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy are employed.
It’s approximately 2,800 miles from Riggins to Foxborough, but if that tiny town’s favorite son gets selected by Bill Belichick, you just might see the Vander Esch Express rolling down the Mass. Pike this summer.
“Yeah, I’m sure it’ll definitely make the trip to wherever I end up playing,” said Vander Esch. “Maybe we’ll even make a couple transformations to it. We’ll see.’’
The top linebackers in the NFL draft
Best of the rest: ILBs: *Christian Sam, Arizona State (6-2, 237, 4.75); Fred Warner, BYU (6-3, 227, 4.64); Micah Kiser, Virginia (6-2, 240, 4.66); Josey Jewell, Iowa (6-1, 235, 4.82); Tegray Scales, Indiana (6-0, 230, 4.77); OLBs: Shaquem Griffin, Central Florida (6-1, 227, 4.38); *Hercules Mata’afa, Washington State (6-1, 254, 4.76); Skai Moore, South Carolina (6-2, 221, 4.73); *Jerome Baker, Ohio State (6-1, 229, 4.53); *Josh Sweat, Florida State (6-4, 251, 4.53).