<
>

Cowboys hope Leighton Vander Esch remains a quick study

FRISCO, Texas -- Before Leighton Vander Esch can run in the Dallas Cowboys’ defense, the coaches want to make sure he can walk.

They might want to listen to Vander Esch’s father, Darwin. His son seems to be a quick learner.

“He went from crawling to walking to running and not falling down in two weeks’ time,” Darwin said. “And that is not an exaggeration.”

He could not remember exactly how old Leighton was -- “maybe a year,” he said -- but when Leighton saw his three older sisters run out the back door of the house one day, he quickly followed.

“They were going to leave him in the house,” Darwin said. “He stood up in the living room, he was on his feet and he was running to the back door. I looked at my wife, ‘Did you see that?’ She’s like, ‘What?' and I go, ‘He just ran from the living room to the back door, never stuttered, never fell on his butt, didn’t fall on his hands. Man.’ And he’s never quit running from that time on.”

The Cowboys hope Vander Esch can make that quick of an adjustment to their defense, but as the first-round pick begins his career Friday with the first day of rookie minicamp, the coaches will not ask too much of him or any of the rookies.

On Friday and Saturday, the rookies, as well as selected veterans, will go through two practices each day and one more Sunday, but they will never rise above a walk-through speed.

“It is a little bit of a change [from years past],” coach Jason Garrett said. “We’ve done this a lot of different ways throughout the years. We’ve had a lot of tryout guys and we’ve had more formal football practices at different times. Other times we’ve dialed it back because of the numbers we’ve had.

"Really, what we want them to do is try to do a better job of laying a physical foundation for what we’re going to ask them to do going forward instead of going full speed right away and then kind of dialing back.”

Training for the draft is not the same as training for a football season. The players have worked on combine-like drills, not the fits-and-starts required to play a game. By working the players up to speed, the Cowboys hope to avoid nagging soft-tissue injuries that bothered draft picks from a year ago, Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis.

Garrett said part of the motivation for the change is to protect the players from themselves.

“As coaches, we want to put them in competitive situations to see what we have, but again, we just think it’s better to pull back a little bit,” Garrett said. “A lot of instructions about how we do things, what we’re doing, expose them to a lot of scheme early on, but the pace of practice will be a little slower, and as we get going in the offseason program with them, we’ll obviously dial it up a little faster.”

The Cowboys picked Vander Esch with the idea he can play all three linebacker spots, but have said he will play middle linebacker first. Having lost Anthony Hitchens to free agency, and with Jaylon Smith still something of a mystery because of the serious knee injury that prevented him from playing as a rookie in 2016, Vander Esch is viewed as a starter from day one.

He wasn’t that way at Boise State. After playing eight-man football at Salmon River High School in Riggins, Idaho, he walked on at Boise State. He did not become a full-time starter until last season when he made 141 tackles, had nine tackles for loss, four sacks, four forced fumbles and three interceptions.

The Cowboys believe Vander Esch has plenty of room to grow as a player.

Which brings another story from his father.

“He was 2 years old and he went on a 2-3 mile hike with me and he didn’t want to be carried,” Darwin said. “I said, ‘Do you want to be carried?’ ‘Nope.’ ‘You want me to carry you back?’ He’s like, ‘No.’ I mean, it was 2-3 miles in and 2-3 miles back out and never once did we pick him up to carry him. He always had to keep up with everyone else and it was always a competition.”