Inside The Numbers: James Laurinaitis

The first two installments of "Inside The Numbers" were focused on the offensive side of the ball, but the third and final one is a bit different. This time, it's James Laurinaitis who gets compared to some of the best linebackers in Buckeye history.

The final piece turns its attention to the defensive side of the ball, a much harder place to prognosticate. After all, who would have expected a defense returning just two starters in 2006 to be one of the best scoring defenses in the country? In the same vein, who could have predicted the emergence of James Laurinaitis, a sophomore known more for his father's wrestling profession than for his play entering the year?

The Hamel, Minn., native finished the season with 115 tackles, intercepted five passes, forced three fumbles and made four sacks. Those numbers helped Laurinaitis win the postseason Nagurski Award, given to the best defensive player in the country by the Charlotte Touchdown Club.

Now what is on the horizon for the fast-rising junior-to-be? Can he improve on his numbers with another year of experience?

Looking at defensive numbers can be very difficult to do because those numbers are much more heavily influenced by game situations and luck than offensive statistics. For example, A.J. Hawk went from 141 stops in 2004 to 121 in '05, but Hawk wasn't any less a player. However, we can do a number of tests that should at least put us in the ballpark of what should be expected from the "Little Animal" in 2007.

Tackle numbers are often the hardest to predict but a few general trends can be found when looking at how those numbers changed for OSU linebackers going from their sophomore to junior years in the last quarter century.

Since 1982, eight Buckeye sophomore stoppers – Pepper Johnson, Chris Spielman, Steve Tovar, Craig Powell, Lorenzo Styles, Andy Katzenmoyer, Na'il Diggs and Hawk – before Laurinaitis logged more than 80 tackles. Of those eight, six saw their tackle numbers increase during their junior years. On average, the eight made 13.5 more tackles as juniors than as sophomores.

The numbers are even more favorable for Laurinaitis when one looks at the sophomores to have more than 100 tackles. Laurinaitis is just the fifth Buckeye to do that in the past 25 years, joining Spielman (140 tackles in 1985), Tovar (125 in '90), Styles (117 in '93) and Hawk (106 in '03). Three of the previous four – all but Tovar – saw their tackle numbers go up during their junior years. On average, the four gained made over 21 more stops as juniors.

So the numbers tend to say that Laurinaitis will boost his number of tackles in 2007. However, there are a number of other things to keep in mind contextually. Three other factors that could come into play are the number of plays OSU's defense will face, how many of those for which Laurinaitis can expect to be on the field, and if there have been any depth chart changes over the past year.

No one doubts that Ohio State, with Marcus Freeman, Larry Grant, Curtis Terry, Ross Homan, Austin Spitler and Thaddeus Gibson on the spring two-deep, has a plethora of options at the linebacker spot. It would be reasonable to expect Laurinaitis to see his playing time cut into with that stockpile of talent around, but the fact remains that No. 33 was hard to get off the field in '06 with that cast behind him.

Will another year of maturation for the group mean less playing time for Laurinaitis? It's almost a 50/50 shot either way. Laurinaitis enters the year as the undisputed leader of the defense, but it is conceivable that the OSU coaching staff will do its best, especially in nonconference games, to spread the playing time as much as possible and rest their All-America candidate.

Either way, it might not matter given that the Ohio State defense can expect to be on the field for more plays in 2007. Buckeye opposition averaged just 61.5 plays per game in 2007, down from an average of 69.4 over the past five years. With the 2006 clock rules that sped up the game now gone, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Buckeye defense on the field for more plays per game in 2007, giving all members of the defense a chance to make more stops.

Finally, Laurinaitis should see plenty of time on the field in both passing and running situations, just as he was in 2006. Laurinaitis was rarely pulled off the field based on a situation the defense found itself in. Instead, he was given a series or two off here and there as breathers but stayed on the field nearly at all times because his physical skills allowed him to excel against both the pass and run. There is no reason not to believe he will have to be subbed based on situations in '07 as well.

It was that ability to defend the pass that helped Laurinaitis intercept five passes in '06, the most for a Buckeye linebacker since Spielman picked off six in 1986. However, it would be very difficult to expect Laurinaitis to get anywhere near that number again in '07.

Just four Buckeye linebackers in the past 25 years have had three or more interceptions in multiple seasons. Spielman foreshadowed his dominant '86 numbers with three picks in '85, Marcus Marek had four as a sophomore and three as a senior in '82, Rowland Tatum had three in both 1982 as a junior and then again in '83, and Greg Bellisari snagged three in '94 and '95.

Five others – Glen Cobb, Johnson, Katzenmoyer, Bobby Carpenter and Ryan Miller – had a season of three or more picks but could not put together multiple seasons with a trio of snags. Katzenmoyer was the poster child for the vagaries of interceptions, as he intercepted four passes as a freshman, two a year later and none as a junior in 1998.

What it all means is that there's a chance that, with his continued use in passing situations and good hands, Laurinaitis will get to three picks, but expecting any more might be asking a little much.

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