This year’s draft was full of defensive talent from the first to the seventh round, but one undrafted free agent that hasn’t been talked about as much is EJ Labaze, a defensive end out of Adams State.
Labaze started playing football in middle school, where he started to find love for the game. Going from middle to high school, Labaze became more of a fan of the game, and it inspired him to take the game more seriously. After seeing a handful of people from his high school make it to the pros, he knew that he wanted to follow suit.
“[I was] always chasing that inspiration and that dream because I wanted to be that guy, that's where I got my start from,” Labaze said.
Because his grades weren’t up to par for recruitment, Labaze worked around this and went to JUCO in California, where he fell in love with the state, too.
“I loved the coaches and vibe,” Labaze said. “Being from the east coast, we always have this perception of how California is.”
Playing football than going to the beach was a dream, but he also went to focus on his craft and excel at the next level of his athletic career.
After JUCO, Labaze went to Adams State, where a lot of professional experience in that college is what drew him to the football program.
In preparation for the draft, Labaze focused hard on the training aspect.
“Physically I’ve just been training five to six times a week,” Labaze said. “There’s certain things you do in the draft process that you didn’t need in college or didn’t harp on in college.”
Some of the things he focused on were balance and inner strength. These aspects of training help players are more explosive and overall bigger, faster and stronger.
Mentally, Labaze was focused on getting his mind right. Because the draft can be stressful and full of unknowns, he just wanted to prepare for “whatever outcome happens and whatever opportunity happens.”
One of the outcomes was the focus on all the defensive talent that was taken throughout the draft weekend. Labaze is confident in the skills he gained from JUCO and Adams State and knows that, as an edge rusher, he can pose a threat and get the job done on defense.
“It is very defensive-heavy, there’s a lot of people in my position, edge rush, that showed great tape,” Labaze said. “What I think separates me from the rest of them is not only the versatility and that I’m only an edge rusher, I can slide inside, I can do other things, I can go to offense, I can play special teams,”
What also helped him succeed was that his coach did NFL-style rotations.
“Not only does that mean I had to learn different plays and be well at different plays, but also means I had to execute in less reps,” Labaze said. “A lot of edge rushers need 40-50 reps. I didn’t need all that.”
They all have similar traits: tenacity and grit. This shows you the work ethic and drive.” Labaze said.
The year COVID hit, it hit hard for Labaze’s team at Adams State. The harsh reality that Labaze faced was that things would never be the same after that, both on and off the field. Regardless, he and his team pushed through and found a silver lining.
“Preparing for that year at Adams State, we had one of the most talented teams we had in years. That hurt us and hurt me mentally because we prepared for this moment.” Labaze said. “We thought that the 2019 and 2020 season was going to be special.”
Now that Labaze is in this stage of his athletic career, he is focused on continuing to push and be great. He talked about how his little cousin is going through this same process in high school. Labaze is someone that his cousin looks up to.
“If a team picks me up, we’re all going to be appreciative of that. For me, I haven’t accomplished anything yet.” Labaze said, talking about how his family has supported him on his journey.
Labaze’s best piece of advice for younger athletes is to get into a mindset that anything happening externally can influence you internally, so you need to figure out how to channel that and make it work to your advantage. He also discussed how important it is to hold yourself to a high standard, especially in the professional sports world.
“If you wanna be someone that is getting considered by a team, you just have to carry yourself as someone who is desirable and what you bring to the table,” Labaze said.