Ready or not, Cowboys rookie Leighton Vander Esch's time to shine is now


FRISCO, Texas — The way linebacker Leighton Vander Esch looks at it, this is why he's here.

To start for the Dallas Cowboys' defense.

He'll be doing that Sunday against the Detroit Lions (1-2) with Sean Lee out with another hamstring injury. Lee's prognosis is unknown, but Vander Esch, who was Dallas' first-round pick in April, says he's ready for the role.

"I have high expectations for myself anyway. I don't have anything less than that," Vander Esch said. "I'm trying to do what the coaches ask me to do and do my best possible and that's just to make plays and help communicate the plays to my brothers on the field. That's what I was born to do and that's what's going to happen."

The Cowboys defense in years past, has struggled without Lee on the field running the unit and calling out checks before the snap. Vander Esch, however, played well in Seattle when Lee left the game. The speed of the game no longer seemed to be an issue for him.

"There's a reason they drafted me in the first round and I have to live up to that, so when they need me I'm going to be there," said Vander Esch, who gave himself a good grade through three weeks. "I think I've done exactly what the coaches have asked me to do, just be consistent. That's the biggest thing: you have to be consistent week in and week out. It doesn't matter what you did last week or the week before. None of that matters now, it's what do I do this week."

Especially, as a starter for the first time. Lee, of course, is still available to help the rookie prepare, along with Jaylon Smith. Vander Esch's locker is next to Lee's. Safety Jeff Heath said Vander Esch's work ethic was evident from the start. Heath said that will serve him well against the Lions.

"Just by how he comes to work every day and just how much he's improved since he first got here," Heath said. "He's very intelligent so he knows what to do. He's very athletic and he's gotten better and better. I think he's shown the last couple of games when he's gone in he's played really well."

Plus, Heath said, Vander Esch's comfort level within the defense has allowed him to start letting his instincts take over, which is crucial to stay ahead of the pace of the game.

"He's just more comfortable with his assignments. Once you know what you're supposed to do like the back of your hand it just allows you to play a lot faster," Heath said. "Now that he knows what to do, he can utilize all of his God-given abilities. He's not thinking as much during the play. He does all his thinking before the snap and then once the ball is snapped he lets his instincts take over."

Vander Esch grew up playing eight-man football before playing at Boise State. In high school, he played quarterback as well as middle linebacker, and at times safety. The versatility has helped him be a better student of the game, which has helped him learn the Cowboys' system quickly, which has allowed him to get to a point where he can let his natural ability take over on the field.

"Communicating to yourself, almost like self-talking before the play, before the offense even gets set up, that's putting (me) in position to make plays and play fast," Vander Esch said. "Just knowing what you need to do and going through all the checks in your head before the ball is snapped is going to let you play fast."