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Building Leighton Vander Esch

Vander Esch is expected to be selected in the first round of tonight's draft.
Credit: Terhune, Katie
Photo: Boise State Athletics

BOISE -- When you watch Leighton Vander Esch run around the football field these days, it's almost hard to remember that he did not always look like this.

The player that arrived at Boise State with little to no fanfare back in 2014, now bares little resemblances to the athlete that is currently one of the most popular collegiate football players in the country.

"Leighton was long, tall, kind of gangly," recalled Boise State strength and conditioning coach Jeff Pitman. "But you knew by the way he worked that he was going to be able to put the weight on and get going."

LIVE BLOG: Tracking Leighton Vander Esch at the NFL Draft

Vander Esch may have went to Boise State as a walk-on, but he's leaving as a potential first-round NFL Draft Pick.

So how did it happen? How did this kid from Riggins transform himself into a 256-pound tackling machine that won Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2017?

Searching for the answer, we went inside the Boise State weight room, the place where Leighton Vander Esch was built.

"Everything that he did was top notch," said Pitman.

When asked to elaborate on the improvements Vander Esch made during his time in college, Pitman sauntered into his office an pulled out a piece of paper. As he extended his arms in front of him to read it, you could see a bunch of numbers, however, they were neatly organized. The numbers serve as bookends to an incredible journey for Vander Esch, and reveal all the hard work he put into the weight room over while at Boise State.

MORE: Leighton Vander Esch headed to NFL Draft

"After going through what we call the Blue Blood phase and going through the redshirt year," recalled Pitman, point to the piece of paper, "I think that first winter was when he really started developing in here."

When Vander Esch first arrived on campus, he weighed 215 pounds, ran a 5.01 40-yard dash, and his one-rep power clean max equated to 285 pounds.

In three-and-half-years, he managed lower his 40-time to 4.65 seconds despite gaining 41 pounds. His calculated one-rep power clean max jumped 100 pounds as well, as he saw his vertical rise from 31 inches in that first year of college all the way to 39.5 inches at the NFL Combine.

"Being an Idaho guy myself, I knew about Riggins," explained Pitman. "(I knew) that growing up there, he was going to be a tough kid. He definitely was that; hardnosed and blue collar. He was everything that we look for in player."

As Vander Esch's body continued to develop and grow, Pitman explained that the strength staff began to implement new exercises to build muscle in the neck area for their players as well.

"We did a lot of different neck (exercises), other than doing the neck machine. We did a lot of manual stuff. We put a strong focus on that," said Pitman, "and it worked, especially with him."

Pitman credited assistant strength coach and former Marshall linebacker Tyson Gale for the new ideas, ones they are now emphasizing for some of their current players having witnessed the success they had with Vander Esch.

"Yeah, that's a good looking neck," quipped Pitman. "Obviously Leighton, genetically, is just a different animal."

From walk-on to first round pick. It's a story that seems unlikely but only until you get a better understanding of Vander Esch's elite attitude and work ethic.

"He's along those lines of a guy that basically has all the boxes checked and there's a lot of room for potential grow," added Pitman. "That's one thing we talked about to the (NFL) scouts. This guy's got the potential to play a long time."

As for that piece of paper detailing the journey, it's likely something that Pitman will hang one to for quite some time. The results on it will be used to motivate the current Broncos that Vander Esch is leaving behind - for now - in Boise. It will serve as a reminder that the work done in the shadows of the weight room, can allow one to shine in the NFL spotlight.

"He's a superior athlete. He's superior in every way; mentally, physically, emotionally," said Pitman of Vander Esch. "The guy that was on a mission and will continue to be on a mission. I fully expect him to play 10 years in the NFL at a very rough position. I'm excited to see him play."

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