Leighton Vander Esch knows how to track. It’s part of his DNA, growing up the son of a hunting outfitter in remote Idaho.
He’s tracked everything from mountain lions to Alaskan grey wolves in the mountainous Pacific Northwest to now quarterbacks and running backs for the Dallas Cowboys.
It’s no secret he’s known as the ‘Wolf Hunter.’
“Hunting is slow-paced and football is fast-paced and violent,” Vander Esch said. “But the focus factor in both is similar.”
Vander Esch has showcased his talents through the first two games of the season, combining to make 10 tackles, one more than All-Pro Sean Lee.
Those pursuit angles and natural instincts are something he’s groomed since his high school days of playing eight-man football for Salmon River High in Riggins, Idaho.
“I know playing eight-man helped me. It’s all tracking,” said Vander Esch, who led Salmon River to two state titles his junior and senior seasons.
“The tracking phase before you even make the tackle, that’s really what eight-man teaches you. You’ve got to be able to tackle in space and break down and make plays in space. It teaches you to use your athleticism with all the open field around you.”
What exactly is eight-man football? Fans in Texas may be more familiar with six-man football, played in the smaller towns across the state. But eight-man is more similar to 11-man than anything.
As Vander Esch’s high school coach, Charlie Shepherd, put it: “Essentially, you’re playing without your two tackles and your flanker on offense. On defense, you’re taking away maybe your nickel backs and one less down lineman.
“The biggest difference is you have the same size field that you have to cover with three less guys.”
That’s why Shepherd is fortunate that he had players such as Vander Esch rolling through his program.
Vander Esch never left the field. He played quarterback and wide receiver on offense; linebacker on defense; and punted on special teams.
“He was the Michael Jordan of eight-man,” Shepherd said. “He was a standout. His senior year in the state championship game, a lot of fans made the comment after the game was over that it looked like a high schooler out there playing with junior high kids. He was that much of a standout at the eight-man level.
“He was definitely the Mr. Football of eight-man in Idaho his junior and senior years.”
Much like 11-man football, eight-man football has adapted with the ever-changing philosophies within the game. Shepherd tried his best to design game plans that utilized his players’ talents.
He’s run schemes that are run-heavy when he has a solid offensive line and running game. And he’s used a spread formation, something he did more with Vander Esch in school.
Shepherd’s son and Vander Esch’s high school teammate and friend, Charlie Shepherd Jr., explained just how good of a quarterback Vander Esch was in high school.
“He could throw it 50, 60 yards off his back foot and drop a dime,” Shepherd Jr. said.
Added Shepherd: “With his arm and his arm strength, we instantly had a deep threat quarterback so we’d spread the field. If they double-teamed the receivers, Leighton would turn it loose and run for 30, 40 yards a pop.
“A good coach does what he has to win with the personnel he has, but a lot of coaches like to lineup and play smash-mouth no matter what. Those are the kinds who have their ups and downs.”
Vander Esch certainly left his mark on the eight-man game, and is now looking to do the same in the NFL after a successful college career at Boise State.
Not many eight-man players reach Division I football, let alone the NFL. Shepherd had just one other Division I player come through Salmon River before Vander Esch.
“I’ve had probably four players before Leighton that should have went on and played Division I football, but they just never believed they could do it,” Shepherd said. “They didn’t have the confidence or beliefs that they could transform from eight-man to 11-man and play at that level.
“Then along comes Leighton and now [my current players] know the sky’s the limit because of what Leighton has accomplished. He’s showed that with good work ethic and the will to achieve and to not be denied no matter what people say … the kids now know the sky’s the limit.”