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Leighton Vander Esch went from small-town star to NFL prospect

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In the spring of 2013, Andy Avalos, then Boise State's defensive line coach, walked into what he thought was Salmon River High School.

"Excuse me, ma'am," Avalos said to the woman working the front desk. "Is this the high school? I'm looking for Leighton Vander Esch."

The woman began to laugh.

"This is K through 12. We only have one school here," she replied.

Roughly 150 miles north of Boise, where the Salmon River and the Little Salmon River converge, sits Riggins, Idaho. Population: 420.

The first student Avalos saw was a little girl who barely came up to his waist.

"Do you know Leighton Vander Esch?" he asked the little girl. "Is he a nice guy?"

"Oh, he's awesome," she said excitedly. "He's right down over there."

When you attend the same school as first-graders and you're a member of a graduating class of 11, it's a constant struggle to get recognized by college scouts. Even when you're the best player in every game of every sport you play.

"It wasn't even fair," Avalos told me with a laugh about Vander Esch's dominance.

Vander Esch led the Savages to state titles in basketball and football during his junior and senior seasons. During his senior season, he averaged over 11 rebounds and almost 30 points per game in basketball. In football, he threw 28 touchdown passes and ran for another 34 scores. As a linebacker that year, he recorded 131 tackles with five interceptions, five fumble recoveries and four defensive touchdowns.

But it wasn't your everyday high school football. With so few students, Salmon River is unable to field an entire football team. So the school competes in eight-man football. Friday night lights literally were supplied by the headlights of trucks that were parked in a row down both sidelines.

"It's a whole different world," Avalos told me of the eight-man football game.

"There was a lot of work to do, physically and mentally," Vander Esch told me after his pro day in Boise.

Maybe it was a reason that Boise State, even with everything Vander Esch accomplished, didn't offer him a scholarship. He was a preferred walk-on as a 190-pound linebacker in 2014, when he redshirted.

But Avalos, who added defensive coordinator to his title in 2016, believed growing up in a small town surrounded by multiple national forests was an advantage for Vander Esch. You hunt and you fish. Vander Esch's father, Darwin, hunts so often that he's been known to say if he goes too long without killing something, he gets on edge. It's a place that makes you humble and hungry. Accompanied by a toughness and a chip on your shoulder as big as the mountains that surround the town.

After a 2014 season in which he spent countless extra hours adjusting to 11-man football in the film room and on the practice field and added 30 pounds to his frame, Vander Esch still wasn't on scholarship. He'd make extra money in Riggins as a rafting guide.

But coaches saw how well he moved. They saw how fluid he was and understood that if he could concentrate on football, he was going to grow by leaps and bounds, mentally and physically.

Before the 2015 season, Boise State gave Vander Esch a scholarship, and he thrived. The transformation was so drastic that when the coaches were cutting up some practice film from 2014 before this season started and the new members of the staff were asked who the player was on the film, not one said Vander Esch. He had developed into a 240-pound monster who was named Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year in the 2017 season, and he is now considered a potential first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

"That was just the tip of the iceberg last season," Vander Esch said. "The sky is the limit."

The more people I talked to, the more I realized Vander Esch doesn't have an ego. He'll never walk into a locker room and pound his chest. He naturally becomes the alpha male with the credibility gained from outworking everyone in the weight room and on the practice field. When he's drafted and plays his first NFL game next season, he'll only have a handful of starts playing 11-man football under his belt, as he didn't become a starter until 2017.

"Money is nice and all that, but he doesn't care," Avalos told me, ironically on the very same day Vander Esch signed an endorsement contract with Nike. "He wants to be good at what he's doing. Whatever he's doing, he's going to do a certain way. One way and one way only. He's going to work his ass off to be the best or as good as he can be, whatever it is. He's got the aptitude and the motivation to do it."

When you get a grasp of where Leighton Vander Esch comes from, you understand how he's wired. And it might just be the reason he succeeds.

Follow James Palmer on Twitter @JamesPalmerTV.

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