It isn't often that former walk-ons become conference MVPs and celebrated NFL draft prospects but Vander Esch is far from your typical player.
The breakout season Vander Esch enjoyed for the Broncos in 2017 - when he was credited with an eye-popping 141 tackles to earn Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors - was perhaps just as remarkable as the journey he took in arriving at Boise State, hailing from a town (Riggins, Idaho) which sported a population of just 406 people at the last census and a high school team that won the state championship in both his junior and senior seasons, albeit in eight-man football.
While his fourth year on campus resulted in one of the most impressive campaigns by any defender in all of college football in 2017, Vander Esch's career started off in humble fashion.
The self-described "scrawny" 6-4, 215 pounder redshirted in 2014 and recorded just 20 tackles (mostly in mop-up duty) a year later. His 2016 season began in fine form with his second career sack among five tackles in a win over Louisiana-Lafayette but he was hampered by an undisclosed injury a few games later and missed most of the next two months, ultimately finishing his third season on campus with a total of 27 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and an interception.
Optimism was high that the now-strapping Vander Esch would break out in 2017, especially after he recorded a then-career high six tackles (all solos) against Baylor in a Cactus Bowl loss to Baylor to cap the 2016 season and earned buzz from teammates and the coaching staff for his "freakish" athleticism.
Few, however, could have predicted that he would blow up like he did.
Like the year before, Vander Esch enjoyed a solid season-opener, recording a sack among his seven tackles (including six solos) in a win over Troy. It was his next performance - setting a new career-high with 16 tackles (including two sacks) and forcing a fumble against Washington State a week later than started capturing the attention of scouts with Vander Esch beginning an impressive streak of enjoying his best performances against top competition. He recorded 10 tackles (including one for loss) against Virginia, a game-high 11 tackles (including nine solos and a tackle for loss) in an upset win at San Diego State, earning MVP honors of the Mountain West Conference Championship game win over Fresno State by tying his career-high with 16 tackles (including 10 solos), along with icing the game with an interception late in the fourth quarter and capping his career with a dominating performance against Oregon to help win the Las Vegas Bow, recording 12 tackles, including three for loss and a sack.
Scouts will have to weigh the fact that Vander Esch only enjoyed one dominant season at the collegiate level but teams are often willing to gamble early picks on athletes with perceived untapped potential, especially those who have shown the grit to rise from former walk-ons to superstars. One need only look to last year's draft, in fact, when the Arizona Cardinals made former Temple walk-on Haason Reddick the No. 13 overall selection.
Played football, basketball and track and field at Salmon River High School...helped team to 1A Division II state titles in both football and basketball as a junior and senior...averaged 29.4 points and 11.1 rebounds per game as a senior on the basketball team...named IdahoSports.com Student-Athlete of the Year in 2014...All-Idaho 1A Division II Player of the Year...played quarterback and middle linebacker...in 2013 completed 60.8 percent of his passes (121-for-199) for 2,155 yards and 28 touchdowns with just one interception...also carried 157 times for 1,565 yards and 34 touchdowns...on defense he made 131 tackles (85 solo) with five interceptions, five fumble recoveries and four defensive touchdowns...played for head coach Charlie Shepherd.
Looks the part of a modern day NFL linebacker with a strapping, well-built frame including broad shoulders, long arms, a tapered middle and good overall weight distribution. Shows very good key and diagnosis skills, frequenting taking steps towards the direction of the play even before the snap. Shows aggression, as well as good body control and strong technique in taking on, alternately using his length and powerful hands to initiate the contract and disengage quickly or turning his frame to offer just a shoulder (thereby leaving little target for blockers to hit) and sliding off to get in on the tackle of the ball-carrier. A very reliable open-field tackler, using his long arms to trip up ball-carriers seemingly out of his grasp and using textbook hit-life-drive technique to stop even talented runners in their tracks (San Diego State-2017). Impressive agility, body control and speed for a man of his size. Slides well laterally and shows the easy hip turn and smooth acceleration to change directions for coverage duties or when avoiding would-be blockers on the blitz... Basketball (and experience on offense) shows in his comfort boxing out would-be receivers and turning pass breakups into interceptions, with three takeaways on just six career passes defensed. Voted a team captain in 2017... -- Rob Rang 1/7/2018
Possesses relatively long legs for an inside linebacker, which leaves him vulnerable to cut-blocks, an area that he could improve with greater awareness and technique to sprawl and use his length to defeat them. While generally showing impressive body control for his size, Vander Esch can get greedy, getting too far over his skis and lunging at ball-carriers, rather than breaking down. Needs to show greater variance as a pass rusher, relying upon his length, physicality and agility to physically beat blocks but showing little technique. Comes with legitimate one-year wonder and level of competition questions. Missed seven games in 2016 due to an undisclosed injury which teams may need to investigate at the Combine. Hails from a small rural town and may struggle acclimating to larger media market. - Rob Rang 1/7/2018
COMPARES TO : 2018 Hall of Fame finalist Brian Urlacher, Bears - It might seem presumptuous to compare Vander Esch - essentially a one-year wonder - to Urlacher, who recorded an eye-popping 1,229 tackles and 41.5 sacks over his 13 NFL seasons, all in Chicago. There are some eerie similarities between the two, however, not the least of which are their similar sizes, athleticism, physical tackling and small-school backgrounds. It is worth remembering that prior to earning the No. 9 overall pick in 2000, the 6-4, 258 pound Urlacher also fell off the recruiting radar after playing eight-man football in high school and played his college ball at New Mexico before
IN OUR VIEW
Frankly, if there was a "Breakout Player of the Year" award in college football, Vander Esch would have won it in 2017. Sure, there is risk involved whenever investing an early round selection in a player with just one dominant season, especially given the questionable competition Vander Esch faced in the Mountain West. The tape doesn't lie, though. Vander Esch offers a prototypical blend of size, strength and athleticism for linebacker and is an instinctive, physical player with the range and reliable open-field tackling ability to warrant at least top 50 consideration and perhaps even a first round pick.