A healthy Leighton Vander Esch holds key to Cowboys' defense

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As they hung out at an Idaho lake this summer, Andy Avalos noticed something about Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.

Avalos, the Oregon Ducks' defensive coordinator, was Vander Esch's coach at Boise State and recruited him out of tiny Salmon River High School. As they fished and hung out, Avalos heard a determined Vander Esch, which reminded him of the teenager wanting to show everybody that somebody who played eight-man football in Riggins, Idaho, could excel in big-time college football.

"It just seemed like his mind was in the right place," Avalos said.

On Friday, the Cowboys will be on the field for the first time since last season when they hold their first training camp practice in helmets and shells. For Vander Esch, it will be the first time on the field since a neck injury ended his 2019 season after nine games, and he holds the key for the Cowboys' success on defense in 2020.

Vander Esch said he won't even think about the injury, the one he had to have surgery on to help with nerve issues from a spinal stenosis condition, when he starts practice.

"I'm not worried about my neck anymore," he said. "I don't talk about it. It is what it is and people can think what they want to think. I've been training for four months hard, and I'm already better than I was before I got hurt with the injury. It doesn't affect me. I just don't talk about it. It's not worth wasting time about."

Avalos has seen this side of Vander Esch before. As a sophomore at Boise State, Vander Esch was limited to six games because of a neck injury, but in his junior year in 2017 he played in all 14 games and displayed the ability that made him the Cowboys' first-round pick in 2018. He finished that 2017 season with 141 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, two interceptions, five pass deflections and four forced fumbles.

"It was never an issue," Avalos said. "He, for sure, was not tentative. He just went. He looks as good as he's ever looked now. Ever. He's leaned out, lost some body fat, gained muscle mass. ... And his mindset, you can tell he's ready for the season."

As much as Dallas needs DeMarcus Lawrence to affect the passer and a secondary to take the ball away, they need Vander Esch to flourish the way he did in 2018. He had a team rookie-record 176 tackles, two interceptions, five quarterback pressures and three tackles for loss. He was added to the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement.

"He's just an incredible playmaker, incredible person and incredible leader," Cowboys veteran linebacker Sean Lee said. "He's a guy that works extremely hard, that can make any type of play on the field and the guys rally around him because of how hard he plays and how hard he works."

In seven games last season, he had 87 tackles, a half sack, three pressures, three pass deflections and two tackles for loss, but he was not as impactful as his rookie season in 2018. He had been dealing with a stinger before the more serious injury happened playing against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 7. He returned for two more games before further examination led to him being shut down for the season.

If Vander Esch, 24, is as healthy as he says, then defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will have a centerpiece for the Cowboys' new-look scheme. Vander Esch will be in a new role as the middle linebacker and will call the defenses with Jaylon Smith moving to the weak side.

With the added responsibility comes a larger voice in the locker room.

"If somebody messes up, I'm going to get it right. If something isn't right in the locker room, we're going to get it right and fix it," Vander Esch said. "Don't put things off. Don't just brush things off. You have to set things right as they are. You have to do it fast. You can't wait. I think we need that leadership this year. I'm excited to help do that. But I know all the guys are ready to go. I'm going to put everything on the field for them and show them that I'm prepared to play fast and make plays for them and that I've got their back."

Despite not starting a game his first two seasons at Boise State, teammates voted him a captain in 2017.

"In college or at any level, a leader has to have credibility, No. 1 by how he does things to meet the standard. He has all that," Avalos said. "I'm not with him now, but in my experience and what I've heard from coaches there, he has all those things. And the last thing [needed] to gain the trust to be a leader is your output, your production. It takes a while to earn that trust, but I know he's worked hard to put himself in that position."

Vander Esch was at The Star for a good chunk of the offseason during the coronavirus pandemic because injured players could still rehab at the facility. When he wasn't in Texas, he was back in Riggins, training in the high school weight room that he outfitted with $100,000 worth of equipment.

"I've had every access to every amount of weight that you need and a football field there in Riggins, Idaho," Vander Esch said. "That's another thing. You have to be a grown man and take responsibility upon yourself to put the work in that you need to do. Just because we didn't have an offseason, there's no excuses."