Surrounded by NFL general managers, coaches and former five-star recruits, Leighton Vander Esch couldn’t help but think about how even the most unlikely dreams come true.
The former Boise State linebacker, who grew up in Riggins with hopes of playing in the NFL, wasn’t just part of the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. He was one of the stars.
“I remember the first time I knew what the combine was (thinking) how amazing it would be to be a part of it,” Vander Esch said. “The best part was being there, meeting everyone from all these teams, just thinking, ‘Whoa, this is crazy.’ ”
Vander Esch, the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, impressed with his on-field work Sunday. He ran a solid 4.65-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-4, 256 pounds and finished in the top five at his position in the vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle.
“I think I performed really well, was consistent in all my drills,” Vander Esch said. “I was up there in all my drills, wasn’t top two or five in one or two, it was pretty much every single one of them. It was a very successful day for me.”
Draftniks agreed. USA Today said he was one of the top 10 winners at the combine, “was perhaps the standard setter among linebackers” and “should now be squarely in the first-round conversation.” CBS Sports said “he can now be classified as a combine freak.”
“You talk about a big linebacker,” NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah said during the combine broadcast. “You can go 10 years without seeing a guy like this.”
Vander Esch said it was a goal to bulk up and show he could still perform like guys lighter than him. He played at 240 pounds last season as a junior for the Broncos.
“When I was 240, I looked like I was 230. I’m 255 and I look like I’m 240,” Vander Esch said. “I think it’s only going to benefit me on the field, I’ve always wanted to be around there. I had no doubt I’d be just as fast, as explosive.”
Though he tries to block out the outside noise, Vander Esch knows he is in a good place. He said he had formal interviews with 16 teams, and he believes he informally spoke with the other 16.
“I think I put myself in a good position to be a high pick, heard I was moving up draft boards,” Vander Esch said. “It’s not like I was expecting it, but I knew if I was working as hard as I can, I could be in that position.”
As he readies for Boise State’s Pro Day on April 3, Vander Esch will train in Boise, after having prepared for the combine in Arizona since January. His agent, Ron Slavin, said his client likely won’t run the 40 at pro day, having posted a strong time in Indianapolis.
Vander Esch likely will have a nice NFL career, and seasons will come and go, so this pre-draft experience is a once-in-a-lifetime one, and he is soaking it in.
“I’m relishing it,” Vander Esch said. “It’s just miraculous, really. It means everything to have this opportunity.”