It wasn’t that long ago the he was the baby of the Cowboys defense. In 2018, Leighton Vander Esch was a fresh-faced youngster straight out of Boise State after playing eight-man football in high school. At the time, there were plenty of people questioning the Cowboys decision to select Vander Esch with the 19th overall pick in the 2018 draft. As mentioned, coming out of Idaho he could only play eight-man football in high school. He didn’t go to college at a school in one of the Power 5 conferences. It seemed pretty risky.
Flash forward to 2020 and he’s a key component of the Cowboys defense and is asserting himself as a leader. Vander Esch had a breakout year as a rookie when he had to take over for an injured Sean Lee, and never gave the position back that year. In 2019, an old neck injury cropped back up and forced Vander Esch to the sideline while Lee had to step back into the position.
After neck surgery, Vander Esch seems unconcerned about the injury bothering him going forward. Todd Archer over at ESPN has a great story detailing where Vander Esch is heading into the 2020 season.
Besides the injury discussion, there is talk about LVE taking the leadership reins for the team. The third-year player is now a veteran, and a cornerstone of the defense. He’s upping his leadership role as a result.
“If somebody messes up, I’m going to get it right. If something isn’t right in the locker room, we’re going to get it right and fix it,” Vander Esch said. “Don’t put things off. Don’t just brush things off. You have to set things right as they are. You have to do it fast. You can’t wait. I think we need that leadership this year. I’m excited to help do that. But I know all the guys are ready to go. I’m going to put everything on the field for them and show them that I’m prepared to play fast and make plays for them and that I’ve got their back.”
LVE will be moving over the middle of the defense in a switch with Jaylon Smith who will assume the WILL role. The idea is that should allow Smith more freedom to blitz the quarterback, something he has shown to be very adept at doing. It’s part of the new philosophy of Mike McCarthy/Mike Nolan to tailor the scheme to the strengths of their players, rather than forcing players into the scheme.
Vander Esch will patrol the middle of the defense, and don’t worry about him being in peak physical condition for the season. Much like Dak Prescott built a football field for his own personal offseason needs, LVE basically built himself a gym, although it’s one that a few young, lucky athletes will also be able to use.
Vander Esch was at The Star for a good chunk of the offseason during the coronavirus pandemic because injured players could still rehab at the facility. When he wasn’t in Texas, he was back in Riggins (Idaho), training in the high school weight room that he outfitted with $100,000 worth of equipment.
“I’ve had every access to every amount of weight that you need and a football field there in Riggins, Idaho,” Vander Esch said. “That’s another thing. You have to be a grown man and take responsibility upon yourself to put the work in that you need to do. Just because we didn’t have an offseason, there’s no excuses.”
The Cowboys didn’t seem like the same defense without Vander Esch for most of the year in 2019. His presence in the middle will be one of the most important elements of a revamped defense under Nolan. He’s ready to go, not only on the field, but in the locker room, too.