Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch announced Thursday that he’s leaving school a year early to enter the NFL Draft.

Vander Esch was the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year this past season as a junior, and capped off his Boise State career with 12 tackles (three for loss, one sack) in the Las Vegas Bowl.

He finished the 2017 season with 141 tackles (most at Boise State in a season since 1988), including 8.5 for loss, four sacks, three interceptions and three forced fumbles. According to Pro Football Focus, he finished tied for the nation’s best run stop percentage among draft-eligible inside linebackers this season.

“It has been the honor of my life to play for the team I always grew up following,” the former walk-on from Riggins wrote.

“... Because my love for Boise State runs so deep, this was the most difficult decision of my life. I feel now is the best time for me to pursue another childhood dream — playing in the National Football League — something Boise State University, my coaches, my teammates, my family and my friends have put me in position to do.

“... Idaho will always be my home, and I will be a Bronco until the day I die. I especially want to thank Coach (Bryan) Harsin and Coach (Andy) Avalos for giving me the opportunity to be part of this team, and for allowing me a chance to chase and fulfill something that no one expects out of someone from small-town Idaho.”

Vander Esch was one of the Broncos’ three season-long captains, joining wide receiver Cedrick Wilson and quarterback Brett Rypien. With the NFL decision looming, he was not going to make a decision after the bowl, with coach Bryan Harsin saying “That’s the thing about Leighton, he’s not a distraction.”

“We’re very happy for him,” Harsin said Thursday.

Harsin said he believes Vander Esch has very similar skills to another former Bronco from a small Idaho town, Shea McClellin, who went 19th overall in the 2012 draft. Bleacher Report lead NFL Draft writer Matt Miller thinks Vander Esch is a first- or second-rounder.

“Top 50 player here. Way under the radar nationally. Love his game. Didn’t expect he’d declare, but he’ll be on my next rankings update,” Miller tweeted.

It is unlikely Vander Esch stays under the radar for long, as Harsin said he’s sure the linebacker is “going to dominate the combine.”

The Salmon River High graduate will surely put a spotlight on his hometown, of which a few residents travel to Boise State games in a personalized bus.

“He turns his motor on as soon as we walk into the locker room for warmups and his motor doesn’t turn off till he gets on the bus,” Wilson said after the bowl game. “He’s just a great player and I hope the best for him whatever his decision is going to be.”

According to Boise State’s sports information department, the Broncos are one of only 10 programs in the country with an opportunity to have an early entrant selected in each of the last five drafts.

Even with Vander Esch’s departure, the Broncos’ defense is expected to return the other 10 starters from this season’s squad.