They've never met and only spoken once via social media, but Bruno Labelle would be happy to follow the path fellow Canadian Antony Auclair has taken into the NFL.
After being bypassed in the 2017 NFL draft, the Quebec-born Auclair signed as a priority free agent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The former Laval Rouge et Or star has carved out a role as a blocking tight end with the NFL club, having registered just 10 career catches for 81 yards.
Auclair was on Tampa Bay's 53-man roster for last month's Super Bowl, but inactive for its 31-9 championship win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
Labelle said Auclair's pathway to the NFL is inspiring.
"One-hundred per cent, especially since he did it coming from Canada," Labelle said. "That's pretty impressive.
"He's a little bigger than me . . . I haven't seen him catch the ball or run routes a lot but I think we've approached the blocking aspect of the game the same way. That is, being aggressive and a big part of it, for sure."
Blocking has been the six-foot-four, 250-pound Labelle's primary task the past four years in the college ranks at Cincinnati. After redshirting in 2016, the Montreal native had just 20 catches for 150 yards and two TDs in 46 career games with the Bearcats although he achieved career highs in catches (10) and yards (81) last season.
"Obviously everyone wants to catch the ball — for sure," Labelle said. "I came in as a 205-pound receiver, I thought I'd catch a bunch of balls in college, but it didn't turn out that way.
"I kind of took the blocking tight end role and loved it honestly. I don't have any issue with blocking and I think it gave me great opportunities, especially at the next level."
Last season was a strong campaign for No. 8 Cincinnati (9-1), its lone loss being a 24-21 decision to No. 7 Georgia in the Peach Bowl. Labelle could've remained in school for another year but feels ready to shoot for an NFL opportunity, be it as a late-round pick or priority free agent.
Labelle is looking to follow Cincinnati alumni Travis Kelce (Kansas City) and Brent Celek (former Philadelphia Eagle) as NFL tight ends. Labelle said he has spoken to Kelce on occasion and the All-Pro's message to him has been simple.
"Just to keep working," Labelle said. "It's a long process, it's easy to become impatient and want it now.
"I've been doing this for five years and it's kind of like, 'OK, I'm ready to go and take the next step,' but you just have to trust the process."
Labelle is currently training in Nashville, Tenn. With Cincinnati's pro day slated for March 31, his goal remains posting the fastest 40-yard dash time he can.
"I've been running in the 4.6s so low 4.6s (is the pro-day goal)," Labelle said. "Overall, have a good day but at the end of the whole thing it comes down to what you run in the 40."
Labelle initially enrolled at Cincinnati expecting to register plenty of receptions as a receiver. He joined the Bearcats figuring the NCAA was the most direct route to the NFL
"I felt tight end was probably the best fit for me if I wanted to play professionally," Labelle said. "With not having a lot of tight ends in Canada, I felt like coming here and being in an offence that used the tight end a lot that it was just the right fit for me.
"Not speaking English wasn't too big an issue. It took me about a year to get a good feel for it and now I'm good."
Should an NFL career not happen, Labelle would look at playing in the CFL. With no tight ends in Canada's pro game, Labelle's future north of the border could be as a fullback or H-back
He'd even consider losing weight for the chance to return to his roots as a receiver.
"I could see myself leaning down a little bit getting into the 230s to be used more as a fifth receiver in the slot," he said. "I'm optimistic about the NFL . . . I feel I have a good shot to play in the NFL either as a tight end or fullback.
"If that doesn't work I'll be happy to play in the CFL too . . .but obviously my main focus is to play in the NFL right now. I feel like many blocking tight ends (in the NFL) are big dudes like six-foot-six, six-foot-seven and 270 pounds. I'm six-foot-four, 250 pounds, I can move around a little better than some of those guys."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 2, 2021.