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New-look Labinjo anchors Spartans linebacking corps

September 18, 2003
MSU linebackers Mike Labinjo and Clifford Dukes take down Louisiana Tech quarterback Luke McCown during the third quarter of the 20-19 loss to Louisiana Tech on Sept. 13 at Spartan Stadium. Labinjo is second on the team with 24 tackles and third with a two sacks. —

It's the stuff legends are made of.

And like Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, the Mike Labinjo story continues to grow each time it's told.

He lost 80 pounds, ran 50 miles a day and can jump over offensive lineman in a single bound.

Not exactly true, but what can be seen is a new attitude. A man with a constant grin on his face, giddy to torment opposing football slingers.

He's back playing the mike linebacker position this season, after switching to outside linebacker last year, and his teammates are noticing a real difference.

"He lost a lot of weight and he got a lot faster," senior bandit Monquiz Wedlow said. "He left here earlier in the summer, and when he came back I could hardly believe it. He got up at 5:30 a.m. and went running everyday and lost all that weight."

As Labinjo explains it, things were more simple than the stories about him. He just changed his diet and exercise habits, with the help of the MSU coaching staff.

"I had an opportunity to go home for two months and train a little bit on my own," the senior said. "I just changed my diet, drank more water and dropped the sweets."

Labinjo has shown the new attitude in all he has done this season. He is currently second on the team in tackles (24) and third in sacks (two). He also has three tackles for a loss, three pass breakups, an interception and a fumble recovery. His ubiquitous nature has been noticed by his teammates.

"He just has that attitude of getting to the quarterback," Wedlow said. "Any way he can."

But the Toronto native hasn't always had the full support of all of his teammates. When the team was falling apart at the seams last season, his name was mentioned in rumors of players that would be suspended for violating team rules. He never missed a game, but is happy to have the 2002 season well behind him.

"After switching back to the mike position and going through tough times last year, I appreciate this year," Labinjo said. "I just love playing with the guys I do. We're like a family out there."

The biggest difference in the senior's game from last season is the new attitude and his speed. He has become an on-field leader and always seems to be at the right place at the right time.

"It's my endurance and speed," Labinjo said. "I feel like I can play a lot longer and cover the whole field."

MSU has introduced a new attacking style to their defense this season, which Labinjo has taken a huge role in. But the blitzing, 4-3 attack comes with some difficulty.

Opposing teams have been able to attack the Michigan State passing defense to the tune of 345 yards per game - something that future opponents are surely noticing. So, the MSU linebackers are trying to own their part of the passing game, the short coverage of slot receivers and tight ends, with a new game plan.

"We have a different style of drop now that allows us to cover more ground," Labinjo said.

What is still unknown is whether Notre Dame will attempt the same passing schemes that have been successful for other MSU opponents. If they do, it could be a tiring day for Labinjo and the rest of the defense.

But with his new training techniques this season, he will be the last person you'll see leaving the game because of fatigue.

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