Boise State football coaches rarely make the drive three hours north to Riggins, Idaho, but in 2013 one assistant made a couple of curious visits to the little town on the banks of the Salmon River, where some locals pan for gold and most go crazy for eight-man football. This is where Broncos assistant Andy Avalos first spotted Leighton Vander Esch, a lanky linebacker who was blossoming in the wide-open, helter-skelter space of the eight-man game, designed for smaller-enrollment schools on narrower fields with fewer players.
Yet even after Vander Esch was convinced to walk-on, he was positionless. Avalos and Boise State still didn’t know exactly what they had until a year later, when the college game was exploding with spread offenses and defenses were struggling to keep up. Boise State’s staff had made a conscious decision: It needed to find a longer and twitchy inside linebacker, and fast. “We all determined, we had him right here on the roster,” Boise State Coach Bryan Harsin said. “He just wasn’t on scholarship.”
When Vander Esch told Harsin he would be spending part of his summer as a guide on the Salmon River to pay for tuition, Harsin gave him a scholarship and the future keys to his defense.
“We had never really had a guy at the linebacker position, with his size and his speed, ever. I think we’re seeing it now. He’s just different,” Harsin said earlier week, tracing the origin story of Vander Esch, who is a centerpiece of the Dallas Cowboys’ defense during these NFL playoffs. He’s also a paragon for a redefined position.
The middle linebacker was once considered an archetype of strong defense, a downhill battering ram who was mostly responsible for stopping the run. But that role became increasingly obsolete, as spread offenses proliferated across all levels of football over the past decade and stretched defenses more horizontally than ever. All of a sudden, the inside linebacker was the lowest-paid position on defense, placed far behind edge rushers and cornerbacks in the roster-building hierarchy.
But two unlikely rookies have the chance to change that, having helped transform playoff-bound defenses with their uncommon athleticism and sideline-to-sideline playmaking ability. Vander Esch and the Indianapolis Colts’s Darius Leonard are proof that teams are weaponizing their best athletes at a once-fading defensive position.
“The coach’s mind-set is changing in what that guy looks like. That’s the biggest thing,” said Cato June, a former NFL linebacker who coaches safeties at Howard and worked with Leonard as a coaching intern with the Colts last spring. “These guys have to be very dynamic. They have to be lateral, have short-area quickness, great burst, be violent with their hands and still have the ability to stop the run and drop back and make plays in space. And that’s where you see some of these guys that are more athletic now, like Leonard, they’re going to make a lot of plays, because they have those unique abilities.”
Both have turned heads in their debut seasons, in large part because of their ability to defy the traditional inside linebacker mold of a generation ago. Seattle’s Bobby Wagner, along with Baltimore’s C.J. Mosley and Carolina’s Luke Kuechly, are part of a crop of veteran inside linebackers who have been forced to adapt with the league’s rapid offensive changes the past several years — but Vander Esch and Leonard represent the future just five years after they left their small towns on opposite ends of the country for college.
Leonard grew up in Nichols, S.C., with a population of fewer than 400 people, and ended up at South Carolina State after nearly walking on at Clemson. Vander Esch could relate; he graduated in a class with 11 kids and didn’t even get an offer from any of the big schools in his home state. Both became stars in college, and were among the most athletic defenders on their respective rosters. They were physical and versatile enough to clog running lanes, run sideline to sideline on jet sweeps or quick screens, drop back into coverage or rush the passer.
As June calls the inside linebacker’s new philosophy: “Hit with the buffalo, run with the deer.”
Vander Esch’s experience in eight-man football — which rarely produces Division I players, much less NFL stars — has turned into an asset in the modern NFL. In high school he had to cover a lot of extra ground, with three fewer players on the same-sized field, and approach every ball carrier with a harsh reality: In eight-man, if you miss a tackle, chances are it leads to a touchdown.
“He completely had to control the middle of the field, almost from sideline to sideline,” said Charlie Shepherd, Vander Esch’s high school coach.
The 6-foot-4 Vander Esch particularly captivated a national television audience with his relentlessness in the backfield and his speed in coverage in a 13-10 win over Drew Brees and the prolific Saints in Week 13, and he followed with 10 tackles in last week’s first-round playoff win over Seattle. Leonard, who at 6-2 and 234 pounds also carries a 6-8 wingspan, has the versatility that makes him a perfect fit in the modern NFL. He was a first-team all-pro selection and will likely win the league’s defensive rookie of the year award.
If there were any questions about how Leonard would adjust to the professional ranks after playing at South Carolina State, which competes in the Football Championship Subdivision, he responded with 163 total tackles, seven sacks, eight passes defensed, two interceptions, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries this season. When he wasn’t selected for the Pro Bowl in December, he set a goal of recording 40 tackles in his next game.
“I’ve been overlooked my whole life, but it is what it is,” Leonard told reporters. The Colts play the Kansas City Chiefs in a divisional-round matchup Saturday.
The push to develop more athletic and capable players at inside linebacker has permeated the sport, including at the youth and high school levels, where defensive coaches are constantly trying to keep up with the perpetual explosion of offense.
“When you spread out that offense, you’re going to spread out that defense. That’s where the evolution is,” said Matt Monroe, a former college linebacker at Southern Mississippi who coaches high school football in North Carolina and runs Linebacker University, a nationally recognized specialized training company for linebackers. “Defensive end is probably paid the most money on the defense because he wreaks havoc on the quarterback very quickly. But from a sideline to sideline, multidirectional player [standpoint], linebacker to me is by far the most diverse player on that field.”
That has been evident in Vander Esch’s impact on the Cowboys’s defense this season, as he led the team in tackles with 140, and earned the fifth-highest grade among all NFL linebackers from statistics website Pro Football Focus. He and fellow linebacker Jaylon Smith helped shut down the Saints' offense in the regular season win over New Orleans, particularly in limiting dynamic running back Alvin Kamara to just 72 total yards. Dallas will likely need a similar performance in Saturday night’s divisional round matchup against the Los Angeles Rams and their star running back Todd Gurley, who led all players with 17 rushing touchdowns this season and had another four receiving.
At Boise State, Vander Esch has also changed how the coaches recruit inside linebackers. Harsin will let some intangibles vary — an inch here, a few pounds there — but he won’t compromise on filling that position with linebackers who have long frames and can cover lots of ground. And although Riggins, Idaho is still not a traditional recruiting hotbed, he’ll keep an eye on the small town on the banks of the Salmon River. Harsin is already telling his assistants the same thing so many NFL teams are now thinking: “Let’s go find the next Leighton Vander Esch.”
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