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How 8-man football molded Leighton Vander Esch into a Cowboys 1st-rounder

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Vander Esch has a unique Idaho origin story.

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys took Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch with the 19th overall pick in the NFL Draft on Thursday. This story on Vander Esch is from March:

INDIANAPOLIS — Idaho doesn’t have a lot of people. It also doesn’t have a lot of high school football players, which prompts about 50 schools to play in an eight-on-eight classification. A product of that system could be a first-round NFL draft pick at linebacker in 2018.

Leighton Vander Esch played eight-man ball at Salmon River, his high school in the roughly 420-person town of Riggins. One day during Vander Esch’s junior year of high school, he walked out of his classroom to see Boise State assistant Andy Avalos in the hallway. Avalos was there to ask Vander Esch to come to a summer skills camp in Boise. He did, and the Broncos eventually took on Vander Esch as a preferred walk-on with no scholarship.

Vander Esch became a star for Boise State during a three-year career, and he declared for the draft after his redshirt junior season. His eight-man career laid the foundation for that.

“You’ve gotta have a special talent to play eight-man football,” he says. “You’ve gotta be a well-rounded player. I mean, you’re playing both sides of the ball. Not that 11-man players don’t play both sides of the ball, but I think it definitely helps with the speed of the game and being able to open-field tackle. Those are important aspects of the game, and you’ve gotta be able to do everything. You gotta have dynamic players that can play everywhere.”

Eight-man teams typically play on slightly smaller fields than 11-man teams — 40 yards wide, not 53. But with six fewer players on the field, mobility is a necessity. Vander Esch’s ability to move rapidly from spot to spot is a big part of what earned him a scholarship at Boise State in 2015, made him the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year in 2017, and will make him an NFL player in 2018. His athleticism sets him apart above all else.

Vander Esch is one of the draft’s best linebackers at shooting gaps.

I watched three of Vander Esch’s 2017 games. (You can watch them yourself: against Virginia, BYU, and San Diego State.) Vander Esch is widely lauded for having sideline-to-sideline speed and being able to get to the perimeter quickly. But what jumps out to me is the power and speed with which he bursts through crevices in the offense.

Vander Esch is a large man. He measured 6’4 and 256 pounds at the combine, up from a playing weight of around 240 during his last season in Boise. That size is an asset, but he almost looks like he makes himself small — on purpose — to fit through holes and then charge after ball-carriers with speed. He reaches the backfield quickly:

On that play, Vander Esch (No. 38) didn’t have much room, but he was through the A gap between the center and right guard almost immediately. He only rerouted BYU’s running back, but if Boise’s safety had made a play, the Broncos would’ve gotten off the field.

It goes without saying that if an offense lets Vander Esch be a free runner without a dedicated blocker, he’ll end a play immediately. He rarely misses tackles:

He’s also a good block shedder. Vander Esch can be neutralized by a guard gaining a head of steam and diving at his feet, but so can most linebackers. One of Vander Esch’s most impressive traits is that he’s never out of a play, because he throws himself out of blocks and then — like he often does at the line of scrimmage — attacks the ball.

Vander Esch says he can play any linebacker spot. His primary position at Boise State was on the weak side, away from the tight end. That left Vander Esch guarding open zones in pass coverage on a lot of his snaps, but he was good at transitioning from coverage to pursuit as soon as he diagnosed that no receivers were coming his way.

Covering tight ends solo, when he needs to, is a pride point.

“I was always comfortable in man coverage,” he says. “You could pop on the film and say I wasn’t in man coverage, but I was in man coverage quite a bit. I’m super comfortable in positions like that. I take tremendous pride in going into one-on-one matchups against the back or the tight end. That doesn’t scare me one bit.”

I didn’t see a lot of Vander Esch roaming horizontally from numbers to numbers to deny yardage on sweep plays or screens. He normally didn’t have to. I also didn’t come across any of his four sacks as a junior. The Broncos never used him as an edge rusher in the games I watched, instead stationing him more toward the middle of the line. His blend of speed and power there made him effective in both coverage and run-stopping.

When Vander Esch gets drafted, he’ll complete a pretty cool story.

He won’t be the only NFL player to come from a small town. He won’t be the only NFL player who walked on to his college team. But he probably will be the only NFL player whose career started in eight-on-eight ball, who then became a hero for his home-state school, and whose family then refurbished an old bus and put couches in it to bring bunches of people from his 400-some-person hometown to watch him play every week.

That’s real. At the end of Vander Esch’s second-to-last year in Boise, his dad renovated and decorated a 25-year-old bus and put his kid’s name and number on it. A party bus full of Riggins, Idaho, people drove three hours to each Boise State home game, plus others. Vander Esch thought it was “crazy” when his dad tried it, but it turned out brilliantly:

“The support system in Riggins is second to none,” the town’s rising NFL linebacker says. “The people there, I absolutely love ‘em. They support me through everything, thick and thin. I’ve gotta give it to them, because without them, it would be hard to do what I’m doing. I love every single one of ‘em.”