Former Boise State LB Vander Esch coming home; Bronco softball team hires new coach

·7 min read

Former Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is heading into a contract year with the Dallas Cowboys, but he’ll spend some time away from the NFL this weekend as his annual youth football camp returns to Idaho.

The Pro Bowl linebacker will be in Boise on Saturday for the camp, which is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. at Bishop Kelly High School. It’s for children, ages 6 to 16, and parents can register their child at lvecamp.com.

“I’m excited to host this camp in my home state of Idaho,” Vander Esch said in a news release. “The game of football has taught me so much. I can’t wait to get on the field and share my love of the game with the campers.”

Players will learn fundamental football skills and have the opportunity to be instructed by Vander Esch, who will be in attendance to lead certain stations and talk to campers, along with a selection of coaches from the Boise area. Players will also receive a camp T-shirt and have their photo taken with Vander Esch.

The Riggins native played at Boise State from 2014 to 2017 and was named Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year in his final season with the Broncos. The Cowboys picked him No. 19 overall in the 2018 draft, and he signed a four-year, $11.8 million deal, which included a $6.7 million signing bonus.

He’s scheduled to make $2.1 million this year, but the Cowboys announced in May that they are not going to pick up the fifth-year option on Vander Esch’s rookie deal, which would have guaranteed him $9.145 million in 2022. Dallas coaches said at the time that they’re hopeful they can sign him to an extension before his contract expires, but if he doesn’t have a big season this fall, Vander Esch could be on the move.

The 25-year-old posted 140 tackles and became the team’s first rookie linebacker to make the Pro Bowl in 2018. A neck injury cost him seven games in 2019, but he bounced back in 2020 and finished third on the team with 73 tackles, despite missing six more games with injuries.

Vander Esch has been productive when healthy, but the Cowboys have been looking to the future at linebacker in recent years. They picked Penn State’s Micah Parsons at No. 12 overall and LSU’s Jabril Cox in the fourth round of this year’s draft.

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Bates, Williams sign rookie deals

Former Boise State cornerback Avery Williams signed his rookie contract with the Atlanta Falcons on Tuesday, and the four-year deal is expected to be worth $3.7 million.

Much of that money is contingent on him making the roster every year after the Falcons picked the two-time Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Year in the fifth round of this year’s NFL Draft.

Williams attended the Falcons’ offseason program the past couple weeks, and despite teams wanting to see him at slot receiver and running back during the pre-draft process, he worked out mostly at cornerback, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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After joining the Broncos as a walk-on, Williams finished his college career with nine special teams touchdowns. Last season, he won the Jet Award, which goes to the best return specialist in the country, and became the first consensus All-American from Boise State since former offensive lineman Nate Potter in 2011.

Former Boise State tight end John Bates signed a four-year, $4.2 million contract with the Washington Football Team, which included a $722,416 signing bonus, according to spotrac.com.

Washington picked Bates in the fourth round of this year’s draft. He joined the Broncos as a three-star recruit in 2016, appeared in 46 games over the next four seasons and finished his college career with 47 catches for 579 yards and two touchdowns.

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Five Broncos named to all-academic team

Five Boise State football players were named to the CoSIDA Academic All-District 7 team this week.

Defensive back Kekaula Kaniho (3.96, health science) earned the honor for the second straight year. Offensive lineman Donte Harrington (3.94, public policy), linebacker Riley Whimpey (3.82, business), punter Joel Velazquez (3.50, mechanical engineering) and wide receiver Khalil Shakir (3.37, communication) are first-time recipients.

Kaniho won the FBS Senior CLASS Award last year, and on Tuesday, he was named to the LOTT Impact watch list for the second year in a row.

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Boise State’s five selections are tied for No. 2 among FBS schools, behind Stanford, which placed seven on the team. It’s the third time in the past five years that the Broncos placed five on the all-district team.

Kaniho, Whimpey and Velazquez are super seniors after taking the NCAA up on its offer of an extra season of eligibility because of the coronavirus pandemic. Kaniho led the Broncos last fall with seven pass breakups. Whimpey paced the Broncos with 61 tackles last season after leading the team with 83 stops in 2018.

Velazquez has been Boise State’s primary punter and kickoff specialist the past two seasons and handled kickoff duties in 2018.

Harrington is back for his fifth year with the Broncos, and he could stay for a sixth. After missing all of the of 2019 season with a knee injury, he was approved for a medical redshirt year before the NCAA offered players extra eligibility, which leaves him two more seasons to play.

Shakir, a junior, is the only underclassman in the group. After leading the team with 63 catches in 2019, he paced the Broncos again last fall with 52 receptions for 719 yards and six touchdowns.

Softball: Broncos hire new head coach

Boise State has hired former Oregon assistant Justin Shults as its new softball coach, the university announced Wednesday afternoon.

Shults spent the past three seasons at Oregon, primarily as hitting coach, and helped the Ducks reach a NCAA regional championship game this spring. He’s replacing Maggie Huffaker, who announced in May that she was stepping down after three years as the Broncos’ head coach.

“This is an incredible opportunity, one I have been looking forward to since I began my coaching career,” Shults said in a news release. “Boise State is a national brand, can recruit the highest caliber of student athletes and the leadership in athletics and at the university is elite. The Broncos have done great things, and I am excited to see where we take this program moving forward.”

This is Shults’ first head coaching job. In addition to Oregon, he also spent time as an assistant at Southwestern Oklahoma State (2013-14), Miami-Ohio (2015-16) and Fresno State (2017-18).

At Fresno State, he helped the Bulldogs reach the NCAA Tournament in 2017 and directed an offense that hit 50 home runs and ranked No. 5 in the country in on-base percentage (.410) in 2018. At Oregon, he coached Haley Cruse, a 2020 second-team All-American, who ranked in the top 20 nationally in hits and doubles this spring.

“This is an exciting day for Bronco Athletics,” Boise State Athletic Director Jeramiah Dickey said Wednesday. “Justin Shults has been a part of great success in his career, and I believe he will build upon a solid foundation we have in place here at Boise State. His knowledge of and passion for the game and the student-athlete experience will be a tremendous asset to our team.”

Huffaker led the Broncos to their second appearance in the NCAA Tournament in program history in 2019. This spring, the Broncos went 20-25 and finished fifth in the Mountain West.

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