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Next stop for Boise State linebacker is the NFL

Leighton Vander Esch developed many skills playing two-way eight-man football.darron cummings/AP

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.’’

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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

PLAYER

SCHOOL

HT.

WT.

40

RND

INSIDE LINEBACKERS

*Roquan Smith

Georgia

6-1

236

4.51

1

Rangy heat-seeker can get skinny and slip through crevices and land big hits. Moves well laterally and takes efficient angles to the ball. Shows a nice closing burst when blitzing.

*Tremaine Edmunds

Virginia Tech

6-5

253

4.54

1

Played mainly inside, but with his size and athleticism, he could play anywhere at the next level. Has great read-and-react skills and often lands the first blow. Has the speed to drop in coverage.

*Leighton Vander Esch

Boise State

6-4

256

4.65

1-2

Instinctive, smart, and versatile enough to play multiple positions in a 3-4 or 4-3. Has the upper-body strength to stack and shed, and the foot speed to cover from sideline to sideline

Rashaan Evans

Alabama

6-3

232

N/A

2-3

Like most Crimson Tiders, he is smart and instinctive. He diagnoses plays in a flash and will explode to the ball. Effective covering runners out of the backfield. Occasionally will overpursue and miss tackles.

*Malik Jefferson

Texas

6-3

236

4.52

2-3

Heavy hitter who will thump between the tackles all day long yet still has the athleticism and light feet to make plays away from the line. Has the skills to play all three downs and could emerge as exceptional blitzer.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS

Lorenzo Carter

Georgia

6-6

250

4.50

2-3

Has superb quickness and power, allowing him to be disruptive in the passing game or set the edge against the run. He'll jolt and reroute tight ends. Might need to pack on some poundage.

*Arden Key

LSU

6-6

238

N/A

2-3

Fast and powerful pass rusher. Another guy who will easily adapt and fit in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme. He's a Jekyll-and-Hyde type, however. When motivated, he is a terror; when distracted, he's a distraction.

Okoronkwo Ogbonnia

Oklahoma

6-1

242

4.77

3-4

This copy editor's nightmare can also cause some sleeplessness for offensive coordinators. Has a lightning first step and is exceptional at rag-dolling blockers and finding the ball. Collected 17.5 tackles for losses last season.

Kemoko Turay

Rutgers

6-5

252

4.65

3-4

Possesses a nonstop motor and a ton of experience (44 games). Explosive off the snap, can be very slippery, and will get his arms up and be disruptive in the passing game. Sometimes will get swallowed up by bigger linemen

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).

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*underclassman


Jim McBride can be reached at james.mcbride@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.