FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Ask Leighton Vander Esch about his improbable path from eight-man high school football to first-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys, and the rookie linebacker is quick with a retort of never being fazed by brighter lights or bigger cities.
Ask the former Boise State walk-on what he does to relax, and Vander Esch stares silently as his smile grows.
“Uh,” he said Friday, the first day of rookie minicamp. “I don’t even know.”
Maybe that helps explain his rise to Mountain West Conference defensive player of the year and his showing at the combine and other workouts that stood out to new Dallas linebackers coach Ben Bloom. The Cowboys drafted Vander Esch 19th overall two weeks ago.
“It’s kind of hard for me to relax, honestly,” said Vander Esch, who signed an $11.8 million, four-year deal Friday. “At this point, expectations are so high there’s no time to relax. There’s no days off. You’ve just got to keep trucking away.”
Linebacker was one of the primary needs for Dallas going into the draft because of Sean Lee’s history of injuries, Jaylon Smith’s continuing recovery from a serious college knee injury and Anthony Hitchens’ departure in free agency.
The Cowboys hadn’t drafted a linebacker in the first round since Bobby Carpenter 12 years ago in almost the same spot (18th). Carpenter didn’t get a second contract, leaving Dallas after four years in a career that ended after seven seasons. He never had more than 37 tackles.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is already talking rotation with Lee, Smith and Vander Esch for two spots. If Lee stays healthy, that’s more likely to mean shared time between Vander Esch and Smith, a second-round pick in 2016.
Smith didn’t play as a rookie while recovering from the devastating injury during his final game at Notre Dame and was inconsistent last season, particularly early in the year when he was playing more than expected after Hitchens injured a knee in the preseason.
“We’re going to play the best guys,” Bloom said. “Everybody linebacker in the room has the ability to play at least two positions. We’ll get the best guys on the field and they’ll be asked to have multiple positions.”
Lee’s best fit is weakside linebacker, but he’s missed at least one game because of injury in seven of his eight seasons. The only exception was his All-Pro year in 2016.
Vander Esch considers himself a middle linebacker and flatly denied a report from before the draft that a neck injury sustained at Boise had prompted some NFL teams to downgrade him on draft boards. Regardless, the Cowboys weren’t one of those teams.
Owner and general manager Jerry Jones likes to compare Vander Esch to Rolando McClain, a first-round flameout in Oakland who had the best year of his career in 2014 in helping the Cowboys to just their second playoff win since their last Super Bowl title following the 1995 season.
Size would be a good place to start with that connection. McClain was 6-foot-4, same as Vander Esch, with an almost identical listed weight. The rookie is listed at 256.
“There’s always pressure to perform,” Vander Esch said. “Obviously this is the biggest level now so there’s even more of it. You’ve just got to relax yourself and go out and do what you do.”
After helping Salmon River High School in Riggins, Idaho, to a pair of state titles, Vander Esch walked on at Boise, about 150 miles south of his hometown. After a redshirt year, he progressed fast enough to bypass his senior season and enter the draft.
“You’ve got to be able to adapt quick no matter what,” Vander Esch said. “You’ve got to able to take on anything and not worry about it, not stress yourself out, not get all flustered with it.”
With his focus so much on football, Vander Esch didn’t mind getting flustered over a question about what he does for fun.
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