- Attended Salmon River High School in Riggins, Idaho
- Played football, basketball, and track and field in high school
- Helped football and basketball teams to state title games
- Walked on to the Boise State football team
- Redshirted his freshman season (2014)
- High school
- IdahoSports.com Student-Athlete of the Year in 2014
- All-Idaho 1A Division II Player of the Year
- Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year (2017)
- Mountain West Championship Game Defensive MVP (2017)
- Burlsworth Trophy Candidate (2017)
- 2x Mountain West All-Academic Team (2015-16)
- 2016 – Missed seven games due to undisclosed injuries. But stated the following in an interview:
“I kind of messed up my head a while back, playing it safe, but I’m back now, so it’s not affecting me.”
- 31 FBS games
- Career – 128 solo tackles, 60 assisted, 13 tackles for loss, five sacks, four interceptions, six pass deflections, one fumble recovery, four forced fumbles
- Pro Football Focus 2017 statistics –
- Run stopping – 311 run snaps, 67 solo tackles, 15 assists, 4 missed tackles, 46 stops, 14.8% run stop percentage
- Tackling efficiency -17.3 combined total tackle efficiency
- 311 run snaps, 4 missed tackles, 21.5 tackling efficiency
- 393 pass snaps, 3 missed tackles, 11.7 tackling efficiency
- Pass rushing productivity – 392 passing snaps, 78 pass rush snaps, 19.9 pass rush percentage, two sacks, one QB hit, five QB hurries, 8.3 pass rush productivity
- SportsInfo Solutions statistics – 95 solo tackles (#1), 44 assisted tackles, 10 missed tackles
- Washington State
- SD State
- Year – RS Junior
- Height – 6’4″
- Weight – 240 pounds
- Projected 40 time – 4.67 (Per NFL Draft Scout)
- A good athlete overall
- Tall with an upright build
- Rangy due to his long stride and gait, average speed
- Average change of direction (COD)
- Very good lateral agility and quickness in confined spaces
- Hustle is his middle name
- Plays with an edge; a bully, hits receivers crossing through his zone
- Against the run:
- Diagnoses inside runs quickly; doesn’t stay blocked
- Gives up very little grass vertically
- Uses his hands well to shed blocks and, more importantly, direct traffic in front of him
- Excels in one gap, short yardage situations; shoots his gap, rips through offensive linemen to make a play on the ball; plays his 1/11th role
- Very active feet that are always buzzing; allows him to ‘fire his gun’ at any given moment on downhill runs
- Diagnoses gap runs quickly and inserts into his gap
- Play speed on outside runs is above average; displays the ability to leverage the ball down the line of scrimmage and sense the cutback
- Does a great job of staying ahead of scooping offensive linemen, but can also sift under base blocks in order to avoid trash, maintain speed and angle on the ball
- Squares up runners on inside runs, but tends to arm tackle on outside runs, but nonetheless very effective and productive
- Versus the pass
- Played in a scheme that utilized a lot of combo coverages
- Opens to receiving threats to his side to identify any shallow crossers, then gains depth with solid fluidity
- Always re-directs crossers out of his zone and can wipe the timing of the pass out altogether
- Does a great job of reading the quarterback and attempting to get into the passing lane
- Will affect passes over the middle with his height and length
- Very rarely was in man coverage, but when called he used his angles to close on running back flare routes
- Exhibited the ability to disrupt vertical releases by tight ends, but struggled to maintain blanket coverage
- Best coverage trait is his ability to pattern match
- Keys ‘over’ routes by receivers, flips his hips and runs; especially effective vs. 3×1 sets
- Uses his angles and long arms to get in phase of receivers in the intermediate and deep areas of the field
- Played in a scheme that utilized a lot of combo coverages
- Pass rushing
- Blue collar pass rusher; sacrificed his body to push the pocket into the face of the quarterback
- Possesses the speed to blitz from depth
- Converted ‘rat’ or ‘spy’ drops to pass rush the further along the play wore on or if the quarterback broke contain
- Needs to improve his play strength
- High cut defender who possesses slightly below average balance and anchor
- Lumbers to get to top speed
- Once at top speed, struggles to lower center of gravity to make sudden cuts to match running backs doing the same
- Knees buckle and will miss tackles versus players with good change of direction or better
- Will struggle to leverage NFL backs from sideline to sideline
- Can over-pursue at times, but can still make the tackles with his long arms
- Will lose ground when leveraging running backs to avoid offensive lineman; may cause issues versus more talented NFL linemen
- Losing ground often forced him to lunge on wide runs, as it put him just out of reach of making a form tackle
- If offensive linemen are able to target and engage on gap runs, they are able to move him laterally
- Makes a lot of arm tackles
- Wraps up around the hip area instead of wrapping up the legs; could lead to more missed tackles at the next level
- Rarely asked to cover tight ends and/or running backs in space
- In those rare situations, struggled to match the change of direction and explosiveness of the offensive players
- Allowed separation at the top of routes
- Will scream to his assignment, not play the passing lanes en route to his assignment
- Pass rusher
- Did not appear to have any type of pass rush plans
- Often rushed directly at offensive lineman which ended in stalemates
- Well timed cut blocks by running backs often neutralized him
Leighton Vander Esch is a blue collar player who walked on to the Boise State team, and during his only season as a starter he put up some gawdy stats. He is the type of player who’s going to have a defensive coordinator who loves him at the next level, not just because of his production, but because of the attitude he plays with. It’s not the type that is in your face on every play, jawing with opponents. Rather, it appears in small doses throughout the game. Vander Esch avoids the traffic and is able to bring down the running back, then flexes his alpha mentality to the back at the end of the play.
At times, it appears like he is playing at a different speed mentally than others. He is in a constant chess match with opposing running backs. On this play, Washington State executes a fold block by their left tackle, intended on blocking Vander Esch. The free run at the back by the Broncos defender forces the back to bounce it wide. Vander Esch’s feet are always buzzing, waiting for their moment to fire. That moment arrives as the back bounces and Leighton ‘fires his gun’ by exploding outside to help contain the back.
He is very good at diagnosing both inside and outside runs. He hones in on the ball, leverages, can sift under base blocks, but can also stay over the top of scooping linemen and, of course, finish.
It may be difficult for the average fan to see, but he is so good in the box when kept clean. He makes some of the slightest, natural movements that pay huge dividends.
The change of pace in his play is reminiscent of the tempo a basketball player plays with. It helps him avoid the low cut block attempt by the running back and he is able to register a sack.
Much like how he avoided the trash in the last clip, on this run stop versus San Diego State his eyes are glued to running back Rashaad Penny the entire time. LVE’s feet are buzzing, he uses his peripherals to avoid the blocker falling near his feet, continues to leverage the ball, takes on another blocker with his shoulder, then squares up the runner. He makes it look simple.
While he may only possess average change of direction overall, I love his lateral agility in confined spaces. His legs are always underneath his shoulders and he is able to quickly burst laterally when needed. Here he shuffles laterally versus the zone run, but the back cuts it back, so LVE explodes back to his left for the tackle.
Vander Esch also has the mental toughness to shut drives down. LVE is very good against the run in short yardage situations. He displays the ability to insert into his gap, rip through blocks, and make a play on the ball.
His physical mentality shines through against the pass, as well. As Washington State sends two receivers to sit in the middle of the field, LVE shoves the receiver into his own man to trip him up.
His read and recognition skills are just as good against screen passes as they are versus the run. Here you see him open his hips to diagnose the two-man route combination, then peek at the quarterback. He has all the information he needs to comprehend what is happening, so he explodes to stop the tunnel screen. But the best part is the angle he takes to the ball by staying underneath the pulling guard to nail the receiver.
Vander Esch is a rangy player who can cover a tremendous amount of ground with his long stride. His drops are smooth and he can gain depth in a hurry and find threats that are entering his zone. LVE is the inside linebacker to the boundary and as soon as the ball is snapped he starts his drop, keys the #3 WR, only drops to the depth of that receiver’s route, and ultimately eliminates him as an option.
His sort of athleticism is tough to gauge because of his height and length. But on this play versus Oregon you can see it flash. The offense uses jet action to try to confuse the defense. The motion changes coverage responsibilities, but LVE quickly processes it, flips his hips, and runs vertically with the tight end.
While LVE is able to make a lot of plays because of his short area quickness and lateral agility, when he is moving full speed there are times where he is susceptible to over-pursuit or cutbacks. Due to his size and high cut profile, it is often difficult for him to lower his center of gravity to cut.
One of the things that worries me with tall, high cut defenders. Can the body handle sudden, change of direction movements? Watch his body control as he hits the 30. pic.twitter.com/U62nHheT0P
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) February 14, 2018
As many tackles as he made in college, I would like to see him improve his tackling technique, as I worry that the bigger, faster, stronger talent will break more of his arm tackles. He has a tendency to try and wrap up around the hips, which if attempted at the next level, players will be able to withstand slip out of.
There are times on outside runs where I worry that his lack of change of direction and inability to get to top speed may hurt him. On this wide run, LVE has to avoid some trash, change his angle, and he is unable to keep up with the speedy running back. And that was with the back having to lose ground to get around the hold by the tight end.
LVE blitzed nearly 20% of his snaps last season. It’s an area that he definitely needs to improve upon. Too often he would just slam into the offensive lineman in an attempt to push the pocket, or he would come screaming through an open gap only to get his long legs cut out from underneath him.
Vander Esch needs to have a plan, especially if his play strength isn’t quite be where it should be.
Leighton Vander Esch is going to be a very solid pro. He has all the measurables for the linebacker position and a dash of athleticism that will make defensive coordinators excited. LVE will be able to use his long arms to make a bunch of tackles, but at the same time affect the quarterback in the passing game. Signal callers will have to account for his wingspan when attempting to throw over the middle, as he always seems to be keyed into their progressions. His ability to key and diagnose runs and work through traffic by avoiding blocks will allow him to have success early on.
But I do wonder if his inability to get to top end speed in a timely fashion, the tendency to give up ground or get cut, along with his tackling technique, will bring his production down.
Vander Esch appears to be a second round talent who graded out to a 4.681. His best fit will be in a zone defensive scheme with a good defensive line that can keep him clean. Specifically, a one gap system that gives him the freedom to roam, a chance to dominate the box, but able to get to top speed and stay there when in pursuit of speedy ball carriers on the perimeter.