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Spartans try free agency

April 27, 2004

After the 2004 NFL Draft ended Sunday, two former Spartans were contacted by pro teams and will pursue careers in the NFL this weekend as free agents.

Offensive guard Joe Tate has signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and linebacker Mike Labinjo is working on a deal with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Tate said he has signed a free agent contract with the Jaguars for the league minimum.

"It's great to get an opportunity to continue playing," he said. "I would like to have been drafted, but it was no big deal."

Tate said going into the draft, he expected either to get drafted in the late rounds or to go the free-agent route.

Andy Dengler, one of Jacksonville's scouts, contacted Tate right after the draft was over about joining the team as a free agent.

Tate has been in contact with the Jaguars' organization since MSU's pro day in March. One of the team's offensive assistants was in attendance and was impressed with Tate.

Tate will travel to Jacksonville on Thursday to prepare for one of the Jaguars' minicamps.

"The big thing is just having the right mindset, the right attitude, being coachable. I just have to wait and see," Tate said. "I still got a long way to go just with the camps and things. Hopefully, I'll make the team."

Labinjo's agent currently is working on a three-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles, which have invited the Toronto native to their minicamp this weekend. Labinjo said he plans on having a deal inked by the end of camp, which concludes on Sunday.

On Sunday afternoon, Labinjo spent most of the day in front of the television waiting for his named to be called, but he expected his turn would come post-draft.

"I watched all day Sunday," he said. "I watched a little bit of the third round. I had some mixed emotions, but I thought I would go as a free agent."

The list of potential teams Labinjo could have signed with goes on and on. Labinjo talked with several NFL teams before the draft, including Green Bay, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Miami and the New York Jets.

The future still is uncertain for Labinjo, as his weekend performance determines with who signs his paychecks next fall. If all goes well, Labinjo said his agent's work will not go in vain.

"You have to have a different mindset," Labinjo said of stepping away from college to the pros. "I've gotten in a lot better shape. I will tell this weekend from minicamp. Physically and mentally, I'm ready."

Labinjo has a feeling what the weekend might be like. He has sought out former MSU and current Atlanta Falcons running back T.J. Duckett to find out what the post-draft minicamp is like.

"He said it's all about the rookies," Labinjo said. "They are going to throw a lot at us and it's about how quick we pick up on those things.

"And this will be my life for the next eight months."

Last season, Labinjo ranked fourth on the team in tackles, with 94, while recording five sacks and three interceptions. Other Spartans who hoped to get a call from NFL teams include offensive linemen Paul Harker and Steve Stewart and defensive end Greg Taplin.

Harker said he still was waiting for calls as of Monday afternoon. Taplin and Stewart could not be reached for comment.

Staff writer Christopher M. Mackinder contributed to this report.

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