Leighton Vander Esch will be roaming the NFL sidelines this fall, meaning the Boise State Broncos football team has a significant gap to fill at linebacker.
The success of the Boise State Broncos football program the last 20 years has often been predicated on high-scoring offenses, prolific coaches, and stellar defenses.
Among the defensive units, the lineage of great linebackers — from Korey Hall to Andy Avalos and Ben Weaver to Leighton Vander Esch (with plenty of great players in between) — helped grow the legacy of those wearing Bronco blue.
Now, with Vander Esch selected in the first round by the Dallas Cowboys, the question is who will step up to replace his production from 2017?
Plenty of players will have the opportunity. And it might be handful of linebackers needed to take care what Vander Esch achieved in 2017. 141 tackles were part of Vander Esch’s season along with four sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions, and four forced fumbles.
The depth, experience, and talent of the defensive line and secondary will provide a lot, but who among the linebackers will step up? At the top of list might be a player fresh off of playing the last four seasons with Boise State’s one-time rival.
The former Vandal
Graduate transfers have worked out well for the Bronco basketball team so why not give it a try in football as well.
Linebacker Tony Lashley spent the last four seasons at the University of Idaho. While it’s a rarity to see such a move between these one-time rivals, Lashley and Boise State might be a perfect fit.
With Boise State, there is a chance for Lashley to see playing time immediately. A transfer also gives him a chance to raise his profile (if it’s a pro-career he’s looking for). Lashley led the Vandals in 2017 with 123 tackles (78 solo) and had 14 tackles for loss. He was named to the Sun Belt all-conference 1st team, finishing his Vandal career with 261 tackles in 35 games.
Lashley is new to the program but certainly has the talent to make a quick impact. Between defensive coordinator Avalos and a unit of experienced linebackers, Lashley will hopefully fit in nicely.
Tyson Maeva might have been overshadowed by Vander Esch in 2017, but his play cannot be discounted.
The junior has gained plenty of experience since getting game action as a freshman. He’s learned from some of the best during his time (Vander Esch, Tanner Vallejo, Weaver and more), resulting in a solid sophomore campaign.
Maeva recorded 84 tackles in 2017 and also had one sack and one fumble recovery. On a defense full of leaders, Maeva has the game experience and savvy to anchor the middle. If his junior campaign improves on what was a solid sophomore campaign, Maeva may one day see his name listed alongside those former Bronco greats.
A trio of ‘backers
There are three linebackers who aren’t necessarily receiving the most attention (not always a bad thing). All three have made contributions and looking to continue to do so.
Last season as a freshman, Riley Whimpey made 17 tackles while appearing in 12 games. Whimpey will likely see the majority of playing time at weakside linebacker, alongside Blake Whitlock.
Whitlock made quite the impression in 2016, where he earned more playing time as the season wore on. He ended up with 36 tackles and 2 sacks and seemed primed to make a huge contribution in 2017.
A preseason shoulder injury sidelined Whitlock before he could even get going. If 2016 were any indication, Whitlock can be a player to fill the void created by Vander Esch’s exit.
Benton Wickersham is a wildcard among the bunch. Now a sophomore, Wickersham saw action all over the field last season as a true freshman walk-on. He hails from Elko, NV, where past Bronco greats Pete and Jeff Cavender and Tim Gilligan came from as well. Wickersham played in all 14 games in 2017, making one start. He will hopefully see his snaps increase and be part of what will likely be a heavy rotation of linebackers.
Others, like Zeke Noa, Joe Provenzano, and Joseph Inda might be included in this rotation. Noa appeared to be on track to play as a true freshman last season before a knee injury sidelined him.
Replacing Vander Esch is not going to happen over night. But with the collection of talent poised to take the field, the Broncos will be more than fine at linebacker.