MISSOULA — Of the five incoming transfers on Montana’s roster this season, two of them sit in Justin Green’s running backs room.
Both juniors, Alijah Lee and Josh Labrador came to Missoula looking to extend their college football playing careers.
Lee, a transfer from Washington State, and Labrador, a transfer from Snow College, have been in the Griz system for a short period of time and Green is already seeing things he likes in them.
“Alijah, first and foremost, is a guy who’s played major Division I football and plays like it,” Green said. “He puts the ball where it’s supposed to be. He understands pass protection. He catches the ball pretty well out of the backfield.
“Josh is a little different because he’s a much bigger back, definitely a much bigger back than we’ve had around in the past lately. His thing is just bringing his best attributes to the table. I think the biggest thing for him is having something that’s different than any other running back is gonna set him apart.”
The two are built quite differently.
At 5-foot-6 and 197 pounds, Lee is the shortest player on the Montana roster. At 6-foot and 220 pounds, Labrador is the biggest running back on a Montana roster since 5-foot-11, 235 pound Dan Moore suited up for the Griz in 2011.
“If you look at all my running backs, my goal is to never have the same guy,” Green said. “They all bring something different so that when they’re in, that’s exactly what they are.”
Lee announced his decision in May to transfer to Montana from Washington State, where he was a walk-on in Mike Leach’s system.
He redshirted in 2014 and played in nine games the following season, but didn’t record any carries. As a sophomore, he had four carries for 20 yards.
Even though he wasn't utilized much at Wazzu, he knew he had the ability to make an impact somewhere else.
As a Griz, Lee has a full scholarship.
Lee’s been in Missoula since July 25. Before camp started, he used that time for a little rest and relaxation.
“It’s been great,” Lee said of Missoula. “Before camp I was sleeping in and staying in the house and watching TV shows.”
One of the biggest things that sold him on Missoula was how deep Griz football culture resonated. He only visited once during his recruiting period, but once was all it took.
“Coming and seeing the stadium and seeing the tradition the school has and the pride the city has for this team is pretty great,” Lee said. “Every time we went out to eat, whether or not if it was dinner or lunch, all the people, like the waiters and waitresses would say, ‘Welcome to Missoula.’ All kinds of friendly things. I just felt like it was a comfortable environment.”
The thing Lee’s most excited for this season is running out of the tunnel in Washington-Grizzly Stadium for the first time.
“I’ve never been here with the whole stadium crowded, but I’ve seen it on YouTube and I’ve heard about it a lot,” Lee said. “The first game will be exciting. Plus, you get to go against somebody else other than the guys you always practice against, so it should be fun.”
Labrador finished up his two years at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, last season, though not without some setbacks.
He was off to a solid start to his sophomore season. Four games in, he already had five touchdowns and 248 yards rushing.
On the first play of the fifth game against Air Force Prep, things went very wrong.
Labrador was running a wheel route. His quarterback threw the ball underneath, so he came back to crackback block a linebacker.
“He was going full speed,” Labrador said. “I kinda took a one-two step into him. He was quite bigger than me and he just ran me over. He hit me in the head so I was a little dazed too.”
Thinking he had just separated his shoulder like he did the season before, Labrador stayed in the game for another play. On the next play, he blocked someone on defense with the same shoulder and realized that he wasn’t just playing with a separated shoulder. It was worse.
He broke his collarbone in two spots.
“I had a little chunk in between two bones,” Labrador said. “It was nasty. Now, I have a big plate in there, but I rarely ever notice it. Haven’t noticed it getting hit at all out here.”
After his injury, most schools lost interest in Labrador. But not Montana. The Griz would go after him as a walk-on.
“After I got hurt, nothing really came through,” Labrador said. “When Montana said they’d still love me to be here and walk on, I decided, ‘Hey, you know what? I think I can play and it doesn’t matter if I’m walking on or not. I got an opportunity here and I decided to take it.’ ”