FRISCO, Texas – Leighton Vander Esch might not have guessed he'd earn his first NFL start this way, but that's the thing about football – you're only ever one play away.
"I mean, you've got to be ready for whatever," Vander Esch said on Wednesday. "There's a reason they drafted me in the first round, and I've got to live up to that."
To this point in his rookie year, Vander Esch has enjoyed a much smaller spotlight than the typical Cowboys' first-round pick. That makes sense for two reasons. Firstly, he has primarily worked behind All-Pro starter Sean Lee, not to mention a promising veteran in Jaylon Smith.
On top of that, Vander Esch sat out the last two weeks of training camp while he recovered from a groin injury. Although, to hear it from Cowboys coach, that hardly deterred him from getting himself ready for the season.
"He was so engaged when he was out. He's one of those guys that's champing at the bit, he's tugging at your shorts, he wants to know what the call is, he's playing it out," Garrett said. "So he did a really good job when he missed time, staying engaged with our team and staying on top of everything."
It seems to have paid off, because Vander Esch has looked nothing like a rookie in a reserve role this season. Through three games, he has managed 20 tackles. And when Sean Lee exited Sunday's loss to Seattle with a hamstring injury, he played his best game yet, finishing with 10 solo tackles and a tackle for loss.
"I think I've done exactly what the coaches have asked me to, just be consistent," Vander Esch said. "That's the biggest thing – you've got to be consistent, week in and week out. It doesn't matter what you did last week or the week before or the first week. None of that matters now – it's what I do this week."
That is an incredibly prescient response, given that a ton of eyes will be on Vander Esch this weekend. Lee has yet to be officially ruled out with that hamstring injury that's bothering him, but it does not look overly likely that he's going to play on Sunday against Detroit.
If Lee can't go, it'll be Vander Esch manning the weak side of the linebacker corps, alongside Smith. Even crazier than that: this will be just his 15th start in 11-on-11 football. Vander Esch played eight-man football throughout high school, and he started just 14 games during his final season at Boise State.
Given such a small sample size at this level of play, it's even more impressive that Vander Esch is hitting the ground running.
"His transition has been really clean," Garrett said. "Again, he's the kind of guy you want on your team because he goes about it the right way and certainly has a lot of ability and his approach is outstanding and he grows right before your eyes."
None of this is to say Vander Esch won't have his struggles, or that the Cowboys won't miss Lee during this injury absence. But for a front office that spent the 19th overall pick on Vander Esch, essentially as an insurance policy, the Cowboys have to feel good about how their rookie will handle himself.
"Just preparing myself to be ready. Ultimately, that's what you have to do every single game, every single week, every single game," Vander Esch said. "Going out to practice, going out to walkthrough – that's what you have to do. You've got to prepare yourself and get yourself right mentally and physically to do that and go take care of business."