Sophomore steps it up

KIRK PENTON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 5:39 AM ET

Pierre-Luc Labbe had a lot going against him last year.

So much, in fact, that it's a wonder he's wearing a Winnipeg Blue Bombers uniform this year, let alone filling in as the fourth linebacker in the team's 3-4 defensive set.

That's where Labbe finds himself these days while Joe Lobendahn rests an injured shoulder that is expected to keep him out for a couple more weeks. Labbe is expected to perform the duties again tomorrow night when the Bombers (1-1) visit the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (1-1) in an East Division clash at Ivor Wynne Stadium.

"It's really exciting to be playing on defence and just making my chances," Labbe said yesterday, speaking nearly perfect English. "Maybe when Lobendahn's gonna be back I'm just going to be on special teams, but that doesn't matter.

"I'm playing in the CFL and just enjoying it day after day. I'm getting paid for it. I just love it right now."

The 25-year-old was nowhere near as comfortable when he reported for training camp last year. The University of Sherbrooke grad spoke barely a lick of English, and he was the 47th selection (out of 48) in the CFL draft a month earlier.

It didn't exactly scream: Long stay ahead.

"Everything was new, and everything was a lot more difficult for me than all the other rookies," Labbe said.

So the 6-foot-2, 222-pounder put his head down, went to work and made the team. The Quebec City native ended up dressing for 16 games as well as the East Division semifinal, finishing fourth on the squad with 13 special teams tackles.

Then, just when he was feeling good about his lot in life, the Bombers cleaned house, firing head coach Doug Berry. The defensive and special teams co-ordinators were gone.

The sophomore was essentially a rookie again under the new regime.

"With a new coach you gotta do it again and again, and just show them that you can play on defence, too," said Labbe, who could get the start at weak-side linebacker tomorrow if Siddeeq Shabazz's wonky ankle isn't fully healed. "I didn't really have expectations before coming here, other than just making the team first. And after that (it was) making special teams, doing my job and hopefully playing on defence."

Football is all about opportunity, and Labbe is making the most of his. Thanks to his reps on defence, he already has nearly as many defensive tackles this year (two) as he did in 2008 (three). He has also recorded a pass knockdown.

"I've been training all winter just to be ready for whatever happened for me," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's special teams or defence. I just want to be ready to step it up on the field and do my job and do it well.

"For me, a Canadian linebacker, it's special to play on defence with guys like Ike (Charlton) and Barrin (Simpson) and Lobendahn."

Off the field, his roommate, Shawn Mayne, and fellow Canadians Neil McKinlay and Daryl Stephenson help him out when it comes to mastering English.

"The guys on the team are really nice with me, and I'm just asking them to correct me every day if I'm doing some mistakes," Labbe said. "Just tell me right now, and I'm going to work on it and make sure I'm not repeating them."

Labbe isn't repeating many mistakes these days, which is why he's on the field more, wearing jersey No. 47 -- as in the 47th pick overall, a throwaway selection who wasn't supposed to make it.

"Wearing that number," Labbe said, "is motivation for me."

kirk.penton@sunmedia.ca


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