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Cowboys' linebacker Vander Esch wants the weight of defensive play-calling

Dallas Cowboys’ linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is not only hoping to return to form, he’s also hoping to take on responsibility as the play caller on defense
Credit: AP
Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (55) drops into coverage against the New York Giants during a NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

Leighton Vander Esch will be playing more middle linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys in 2020, which means the former first-round pick will have to make defensive play calls.

Though it is a burden that comes with the position, Vander Esch is not eschewing the responsibility; he embraces it and welcomes it.

"I want the weight to be on my shoulders," Vander Esch said. "I want to be able to get everybody lined up. I want to be the leader of the defense this year, and make sure everybody is in the right spots."

After a Pro Bowl rookie season where the former Boise State product started 11 of his 16 games, Vander Esch followed up with just nine games that included 72 tackles, a half-sack, a forced fumble, and three pass breakups. 

The 6-4, 256-pound linebacker spent his second season oft injured, and it affected the Cowboys, who failed to reach the playoffs with an 8-8 record.

Defensive coordinator Kris Richard was swept out with most of the Jason Garrett regime. Vander Esch has a new defensive coordinator in Mike Nolan, who seeks to have the Cowboys roving sideline to sideline and utilizing speed in the pursuit of takeaways.

"That's really what our ultimate goal is, to get the ball back every single chance," said Vander Esch. "Every single chance the ball is in the air, we can go get it. It's free game, putting yourself in position to make good hard tackles where you can go after the ball as you are making the tackle. Having it on your mind at all times." 

The 24-year-old from Riggins, Idaho, also relishes relaying the defensive play calls because it puts him in a leadership position, one where he can lead with his voice, not just through his play.

Said Vander Esch: "Just being that leader out there. That vocal leader. Knowing they can lean on me, that I am going to give them everything I've got when I'm on the field. Like I said, that put things in perspective for me last year, missing half the season and just not taking things for granted. And knowing I got to go out there every single thing and put it on the line for my teammates and my coaches and have fun do it."

The Cowboys technically have another middle linebacker they could start in Jaylon Smith, but Nolan wants to put Smith on the weak side.

"Thus far in training camp, they both can play the position which they did a year ago," Nolan said. "I think going forward they'll just get better and better at the position they're going to play and continue to grow in that regard. But they both have flexibility to do either job, and I think when they lock in to those things at the position, it will bode well for them and us as a defense."

The key for Vander Esch will be staying on the field. If the linebacker who grabbed two interceptions, batted away seven passes, and racked up 140 tackles can return, then Dallas should have plenty of tools to avoid another .500-ish season.

Do you think Leighton Vander Esch will be able to have a healthy, bounce-back season in 2020? Share your thoughts with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.