A new pro­to­type

In the wake of flashy of­fenses, the NFL line­backer had been de­val­ued. The Cow­boys’ Leighton Van­der Esch is here to change that.

The Washington Post - - SPORTS - BY RO­MAN STUBBS

Boise State foot­ball coaches rarely make the drive three hours north to Rig­gins, Idaho, but in 2013 one as­sis­tant made a cou­ple of cu­ri­ous vis­its to the lit­tle town on the banks of the Salmon River, where some lo­cals pan for gold and most go crazy for eight-man foot­ball. This is where Bron­cos as­sis­tant Andy Ava­los first spot­ted Leighton Van­der Esch, a lanky line­backer who was blos­som­ing in the wide-open, hel­terskel­ter space of the eight-man game, de­signed for smaller-en­roll­ment schools on nar­rower fields with fewer play­ers.

Yet even af­ter Van­der Esch was con­vinced to walk on, he was po­si­tion­less. Ava­los and Boise State still didn’t know ex­actly what they had un­til a year later, when the col­lege game was ex­plod­ing with spread of­fenses and de­fenses were strug­gling to keep up. Boise State’s staff had made a con­scious de­ci­sion: It needed to find a longer and twitchy in­side line­backer — and fast. “We all de­ter­mined, we had him right here on the ros­ter,” Boise State Coach Bryan Harsin said. “He just wasn’t on schol­ar­ship.”

When Van­der Esch told Harsin he would be spend­ing part of his sum­mer as a guide on the Salmon River to pay for tu­ition, Harsin gave him a schol­ar­ship and the fu­ture keys to his de­fense.

“We had never re­ally had a guy at the line­backer po­si­tion with his size and his speed, ever. I think we’re see­ing it now. He’s just dif­fer­ent,” Harsin said this week, trac­ing the ori­gin story of Van­der Esch, who is a cen­ter­piece of the Dal­las Cow­boys’ de­fense dur­ing these NFL play­offs. He’s also a paragon for a re­de­fined po­si­tion.

The mid­dle line­backer was once con­sid­ered an archetype of strong de­fense, a down­hill bat­ter­ing ram who was mostly re­spon­si­ble for stop­ping the run. But that role be­came in­creas­ingly ob­so­lete, as spread of­fenses pro­lif­er­ated across all lev­els of foot­ball over the past decade and stretched de­fenses more hor­i­zon­tally than ever. All of a sud­den, the in­side line­backer was the low­est-paid po­si­tion on de­fense, placed far be­hind edge rush­ers and cor­ner­backs in the ros­ter-build­ing hi­er­ar­chy.

But two un­likely rook­ies have the chance to change that, hav­ing helped trans­form play­off-bound de­fenses with their un­com­mon ath­leti­cism and side­line-to-side­line play­mak­ing abil­ity. Van­der Esch and the In­di­anapo­lis Colts’ Dar­ius Leonard are proof that teams are weaponiz­ing their best ath­letes at a once-fad­ing de­fen­sive po­si­tion.

“The coach’s mind-set is chang­ing in what that guy looks like. That’s the big­gest thing,” said Cato June, a for­mer NFL line­backer who coaches safeties at Howard and worked with Leonard as a coach­ing in­tern with the Colts last spring. “These guys have to be very dy­namic. They have to be lat­eral, have short-area quick­ness, great burst, be vi­o­lent with their hands and still have the abil­ity to stop the run and drop back and make plays in space. And that’s where you see some of these guys that are more ath­letic now, like Leonard. They’re go­ing to make a lot of plays be­cause they have those unique abil­i­ties.”

Both have earned ac­claim in their de­but sea­sons, in large part be­cause of their abil­ity to defy the tra­di­tional in­side line­backer mold of a gen­er­a­tion ago. Seat­tle’s Bobby Wag­ner, Bal­ti­more’s C. J. Mosley and Carolina’s Luke Kuechly are part of a crop of veteran in­side lineback­ers who have been forced to adapt with the NFL’s rapid of­fen­sive changes the past sev­eral years — but Van­der Esch and Leonard rep­re­sent the fu­ture just five years af­ter they left their small towns on op­po­site ends of the coun­try for col­lege.

Small-town he­roes

Leonard grew up in Ni­chols, S.C., with a pop­u­la­tion of fewer than 400 peo­ple, and ended up at South Carolina State af­ter nearly walk­ing on at Clem­son. Van­der Esch could re­late; he grad­u­ated in a class with 11 kids and didn’t even get an of­fer from any of the big schools in his home state. Both be­came stars in col­lege and were among the most ath­letic de­fend­ers on their re­spec­tive ros­ters. They were phys­i­cal and ver­sa­tile enough to clog run­ning lanes, run side­line to side­line on jet sweeps or quick screens, drop back into cover­age or rush the passer.

As June calls the in­side line­backer’s new phi­los­o­phy: “Hit with the buf­falo, run with the deer.”

Van­der Esch’s ex­pe­ri­ence in eight-man foot­ball — which rarely pro­duces Di­vi­sion I play­ers, much less NFL stars — has turned into an as­set in the mod­ern NFL. In high school he had to cover a lot of ex­tra ground, with three fewer play­ers on the field, and ap­proach ev­ery ball­car­rier with a harsh re­al­ity: In eight-man, if you miss a tackle, chances are it leads to a touch­down.

“He com­pletely had to con­trol the mid­dle of the field, al­most from side­line to side­line,” said Char­lie Shep­herd, Van­der Esch’s high school coach.

The 6-foot-4 Van­der Esch par­tic­u­larly cap­ti­vated a na­tional tele­vi­sion au­di­ence with his re­lent­less­ness in the back­field and his speed in cover­age in a 13-10 win over Drew Brees and the pro­lific New Or­leans Saints in Week 13, and he fol­lowed with 10 tack­les in last week’s firstround play­off win over Seat­tle.

Leonard, who at 6-2 and 234 pounds also has a 6-8 wing­span, has the ver­sa­til­ity that makes him a per­fect fit in the mod­ern NFL. He was a first-team all-pro se­lec­tion and prob­a­bly will win the league’s de­fen­sive rookie of the year award.

If there were any ques­tions about how Leonard would ad­just to the pro­fes­sional ranks af­ter play­ing at South Carolina State, which com­petes on the Foot­ball Cham­pi­onship Sub­di­vi­sion level, he re­sponded with 163 to­tal tack­les, seven sacks, eight passes de­fended, two in­ter­cep­tions, four forced fum­bles and two fum­ble re­cov­er­ies this sea­son. When he wasn’t se­lected for the Pro Bowl in De­cem­ber, he set a goal of record­ing 40 tack­les in his next game.

“I’ve been over­looked my whole life, but it is what it is,” Leonard told re­porters.

Keep­ing up with of­fenses

The push to de­velop more ath­letic and ca­pa­ble play­ers at in­side line­backer has per­me­ated the sport, in­clud­ing at the youth and high school lev­els, where de­fen­sive coaches are con­stantly try­ing to keep up with the per­pet­ual ex­plo­sion of of­fense.

“When you spread out that of­fense, you’re go­ing to spread out that de­fense. That’s where the evo­lu­tion is,” said Matt Mon­roe, a for­mer col­lege line­backer at South­ern Mis­sis­sippi who coaches high school foot­ball in North Carolina and runs Line­backer Univer­sity, a na­tion­ally rec­og­nized spe­cial­ized train­ing com­pany for lineback­ers. “De­fen­sive end is prob­a­bly paid the most money on the de­fense be­cause he wreaks havoc on the quar­ter­back very quickly. But from a side­lineto-side­line, mul­ti­di­rec­tional player [stand­point], line­backer to me is by far the most di­verse player on that field.”

That has been ev­i­dent in Van­der Esch’s im­pact on the Cow­boys’ de­fense this sea­son. He led the team in tack­les with 140 and earned the fifth-high­est grade among NFL lineback­ers from sta­tis­tics web­site Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus. He and fel­low line­backer Jay­lon Smith helped shut down the Saints’ of­fense in the reg­u­lar sea­son win over New Or­leans, par­tic­u­larly in lim­it­ing dy­namic run­ning back Alvin Ka­mara to just 72 to­tal yards. Dal­las prob­a­bly will need a sim­i­lar per­for­mance in Saturday night’s divisional-round matchup against the Los An­ge­les Rams and star run­ning back Todd Gur­ley II, who led all play­ers with 17 rush­ing touch­downs this sea­son and had an­other four re­ceiv­ing.

At Boise State, Van­der Esch also has changed how the coaches re­cruit in­side lineback­ers. Harsin will let some in­tan­gi­bles vary — an inch here, a few pounds there — but he won’t com­pro­mise on fill­ing that po­si­tion with lineback­ers who have long frames and can cover lots of ground. And al­though Rig­gins, Idaho, is still not a tra­di­tional re­cruit­ing hot­bed, he will keep an eye on the small town on the banks of the Salmon River. Harsin is al­ready telling his as­sis­tants the same thing so many NFL teams are now think­ing: “Let’s go find the next Leighton Van­der Esch.”

RON JENK­INS/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

ANDY LYONS/GETTY IM­AGES

Rookie Dar­ius Leonard, who played col­le­giately at South Carolina State, led the Colts with 163 tack­les.

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