FRISCO, Texas – Regardless what he’s like on the field, rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is still pretty reserved, especially in front of a group of reporters with cameras.
He’s not rude. He’s not even short with his answers. And he’s always accommodating.
But he’s not a guy who has ever been called long-winded.
When asked about his ever popular nickname, “The Wolfhunter,” Vander Esch seems almost embarrassed by it, but also understands why he’s got it. In fact, he also embraces it, evident by the picture he posted on his social media of him wearing a wolf-skin draped over his shoulders before a recent party.
He didn’t have much of a response for the recent moniker “Van Jaylon,” an obvious spinoff of the famous 80s rock band, Van Halen to spotlight the Cowboys’ 1-2 punch of Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith.
And he certainly didn’t play along when asked if he’s coming up with other candidates for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
“Nope,” he said rather bluntly. “No, I don’t really know anything about that. I guess we’ll let the people decide. I’m going to keep fighting each week to make myself successful.”
But ask him about the Eagles, the team standing in the Cowboys’ way for a fifth straight win and an opportunity to take complete control over the NFC East, and Vander Esch is all in.
“We know they’re a really good team with a good offense,” Vander Esch said. “We just have to fight through adversity and know they’re going to get theirs. We’re going to get ours. We just need to be us and don’t beat ourselves.”
Since the last meeting with the Eagles on Nov. 11, when the Cowboys actually started this four-game win streak, the Eagles have developed more of a running game with tailback Josh Adams, who has ripped off 84 and 85 yards rushing the last two weeks.
“He’s a downhill runner. He runs hard,” Vander Esch said of Adams, a rookie from Notre Dame. “He can make explosive plays. We have to stop the run first and foremost and make them one-dimensional.”
In the Cowboys’ 27-20 win at Philly last month, the Eagles were certainly one-dimensional, passing for 350 yards and only rushing for 71.
That was also one of Vander Esch’s best games of his young career, totaling 19 tackles with his first interception, resulting in NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
The Eagles seem to be the only thing on Vander Esch’s radar here as of Wednesday from The Star.
And that’s pretty much why this rookie linebacker has been able to become one of the Cowboys’ most consistent players. He has done a good job of blocking out the surrounding aspects that come with being a superstar on America’s Team. Somehow, he’s remained locked-in on the task at hand.
“Just embracing it. Enjoying my time here. I didn’t want to be anywhere else,” Vander Esch said. “It’s an awesome atmosphere. Just enjoy it, embrace it. But go out and compete. You have to just learn how to keep everything in front of you and get distracted or anything. I think we’ve got a lot of leaders on this team that help you do that.”
One of those guys, even though he hasn’t been playing, is Sean Lee, whose locker is only a couple of feet away from the rookie. And don’t think that was much of a coincidence either.
“Sean has been great,” Vander Esch said. “He’s always focused and preparing himself. You can learn a lot from a guy like that. I know I have already.”
Ironically enough, it has been Lee’s latest hamstring injury that has opened the door for Vander Esch to shine like he has this past month, helping him earn NFL Rookie of the Month for November.
Lee didn’t practice on Wednesday but has a chance to get back on the field for Sunday’s game with the Eagles.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Vander Esch said of Lee’s return. “He’s a great player. We need everyone we can get for these games down the stretch. I know I’m the young gun. I love playing with those guys. We just have a fun time just running around playing with each other.”
And for a guy who has 51 tackles and two interceptions in the last four games, it sounds like his teammates don’t mind playing with him as well.