One year ago, former Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch was in a very different spot.
"It's crazy how things work, huh?" said Vander Esch with a laugh. "It's hard for me to describe what it means, or how I feel about it."
After missing most of his redshirt sophomore season with an injury in 2015, last offseason, the Riggins native was getting set to compete for playing time with former teammate Joey Martarano.
As the story goes, Martarano decided to leave Boise State and pursue a professional baseball career in the spring, which opened the door for Vander Esch to post one of the best individual performances in school history this past fall.
"I can say it's the most wonderful feeling ever, knowing that things are finally paying off and that all my hard work that I've put into it is being noticed," Vander Esch told KTVB.
Shortly after his historic 141-tackle, three-interception season that earn him Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year honors, Vander Esch revealed his decision to forgo his senior year at Boise State and enter the NFL Draft. In doing so, he joined the likes of Demarcus Lawrence, Kamalei Correa, Jay Ajayi and Jeremy McNichols, as recent Broncos to leave school early.
On Dec. 29, just eight days after he confirmed his decision to pursue a professional career, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound linebacker relocated himself to Phoenix, Arizona to train at EXOS, a facility built specifically for elite athletes.
"I feel like I have nothing to worry about but play football, and I think that's awesome," Vander Esch explained. "It's such a blast and so fun training and developing yourself. I'm enjoying every single bit of it."
Two months into his training, Vander Esch now tips the scales at 254 pounds. He described his daily routine as "intense," but he is quick to add how much he has enjoyed the process.
"I've gotten a lot stronger," Vander Esch said. "You're pretty busy throughout the day, but that's all you have to worry about, so it's enjoyable. I love it.
"Being able to focus on training and everything, and being on a good diet and all that stuff, it's just changing my body," he added. "You can see the results in the weight room and on the field, so it's that much more addicting."
Vander Esch lifts and runs two times a day, six days a week. In between and after sharpening his physical tools, he sits in meetings preparing for the mental strain of the game.
The former eight-man quarterback now trains with guys like former Wisconsin linebacker Jack Cichy, along with projected first-round picks DE Arden Key out of LSU, and former Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith.
"It's been fun competing with him and training with him," Vander Esch said of Smith. "He's a really good athlete. He's going to do good things too."
THE NFL COMBINE AWAITS
With less than two months to go until the NFL Draft, this week in Indianapolis, Vander Esch will have a great opportunity to improve his stock.
Vander Esch will be among the 42 linebackers that will work out out at the NFL Combine this week. Coincidentally, Vander Esch, who wore No. 38 at Boise State, will be labeled "LB38."
"Isn't that awesome?" joked Vander Esch.
When asked about his goals for the NFL combine, he quickly took a more serious tone: "I want to come out of there the best linebacker. It's always my goal to be the best. I'm going to fight as hard as I can while I'm there to make sure I leave on a high note, and do what I've always wanted to do, and not take second place for an answer."
Vander Esch arrived in Indianapolis on Wednesday. He will go through orientation on Thursday, get measured and weighed on Friday, do the bench press on Saturday, then take part in on-field testing and drills on Sunday.
He declined to talk about his expectations, saying simply, "I'm just going to wait to show everybody."
He was, however, willing to express his excitement for a moment he's long awaited.
"Now that I'm actually living my dream... it's insane," Vander Esch told KTVB the night before he boarded a plane for Indianapolis. "Even growing up as a little kid and dreaming of it, now I'm less than 24 hours away from leaving. I'm ready to go to the combine."
ONCE A BRONCO ALWAYS A BRONCO
In the days leading up to what figures to be one of the biggest weekends of his life, Vander Esch turned to a pair of former Broncos that have been through the ringer in Indianapolis.
"I talked to Tanner (Vallejo) and Matt Paradis, who grew up in the same shoes as me playing eight-man ball," said Vander Esch.
Vallejo was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the sixth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, which was the same round the Denver Broncos selected Paradis in back in 2014. While Vallejo saw limited playing time for the Bills as a rookie last season, Paradis has established himself as one of the more durable offensive lineman in the NFL. The fourth-year player is the only center in the league that hasn't missed a single offensive snap for his respective team over the last three years.
"Just taking advice from the dudes that were in it before you," Vander Esch said. "I just listen to what everybody has to say and apply it. You're going to have adversity while you're there, because the schedule is not in the athlete's favor. You're going to be tired. You just have to focus in every day and be disciplined."
The latter should not be difficult for Vander Esch. Focus and disciplined have been the foundation of his development ever since he started playing football as a young boy. Determination could be added to the list as well. Vander Esch says that lack of exposure that comes with being raised in a small town has always motivated him to make the most of an opportunity when one finally presents itself.
"It's how it's been my whole life, ever since I started in Riggins," he said. "It's like nobody wants to acknowledge it. But I'm just not worried about it. You just have to focus on things you can control and not worry about what other people say."
So far, so good for the former Boise State walk-on, turned scholarship player, turned starter, turned Mountain West Defensive MVP.
"It's just the beginning. There's still a lot more left to do," he said. "I have to continue to prove myself every single day from here on out."