A Homecoming For Laurinaitis

Saturday's game with Minnesota will mark a homecoming of sorts for Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis. A native of the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Laurinaitis will have a large cheering contingent on hand as he returns to face the school that he originally verbally committed to as a junior in high school.

Saturday's Big Ten matchup between Ohio State and Minnesota will have a more personal touch for one member of the Buckeyes.

Junior linebacker James Laurinaitis will be returning to face the school he once issued a verbal commitment to more than three years ago as a high school junior at Plymouth (Minn.) Wayzata. At the time, he described himself as a "Gopher fan my whole life" to Scout.com.

But it was an official visit to OSU during his senior season that convinced the linebacker to switch his commitment to the Buckeyes. There, while being hosted by linebacker Chad Hoobler, Laurinaitis met a handful of guys who would become his future teammates.

The rest, as they say, is history.

"I think the kids that were on the visit with me, it was myself, Todd Denlinger – who's my roommate now – Austin Spitler, someone whom I'm obviously very close with, and Malcolm Jenkins, Anderson Russell, Robby Schoenhoft, all of us were on the same visit together," he said. "I think it's just really the guys we had on that visit that really made me feel like, ‘Hey, I could actually bond and make some friendships right away.'

"The whole out-of-state thing kind of got thrown to the side right in the first day when I met Todd and Austin, the kind of guys that they were and the way the program was, it was just a no-brainer for me."

Following that visit, Laurinaitis canceled a planned official visit to Minnesota scheduled for the following weekend. In February of 2005, the three-star prospect became the first scholarship player from Minnesota to join the Buckeyes since Sid Gillman (1930-33).

At the time, Minnesota was led by head coach Glen Mason, who was not known for his desire to actively get out and recruit in-state talent. Mason was fired after the 2006 season, and his predecessor, Tim Brewster, has taken steps to attract top in-state talent.

In addition to Brewster's targeting of local talent, the Golden Gophers will be getting a new stadium – slated to open in the fall of 2009. Both should do well to ensure that the Gophers do not lose another player of Laurinaitis' caliber so easily.

Still, Brewster lamented the fact that he will not have the reigning Bronco Nagurski award-winner suiting up for his squad this weekend.

"I'm not going to lie to you: I've kind of looked at Laurinaitis a little bit and had daydreams of him wearing maroon and gold," he said. "But he's not."

Laurinaitis said he was flattered to hear Brewster's comments.

"I think it's nice to have that kind of respect," he said. "I don't think much about it. I just think it's nice to have some respect. I'm glad it wasn't a comment like, ‘I'm glad he's not here,' or something like that."

Laurinaitis' head coach now, Jim Tressel, said the Buckeyes were lucky to get him for two reasons.

"One is that he's such a quality person," he said. "Wherever you catch those from, that's awesome. Two, he has grown into being an excellent football player and I think he'll keep getting better. I think it was a real big catch."

Entering Saturday night's game, the Buckeyes boast the nation's No. 2 defense and No. 3 scoring defense. Minnesota, on the other hand, ranks dead last in total defense and 109th in scoring defense.

The Gophers' problems are as such that it would likely take more than one player to turn their fortunes around – a fact Laurinaitis said he is aware of.

"I'd like to say I'd make a difference but I really don't think I would," he said. "I think it's a group of guys. You have to have a great D-line for a linebacker to be good. You have to have a great secondary for things to happen. Our defense isn't good just because of me."

Similarly, he said his 2006 totals – 115 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, five interceptions and three forced fumbles – would not have likely come about had he been playing for a different team not as successful as OSU.

"I think people win awards when your team does well," he said. "If you look at major award winners, there's not a lot of them that had defeated seasons. If you think back to last year, (quarterback) Troy (Smith) had a great year but if we didn't win all those games and he wasn't a winner he might not have gotten the Heisman, most likely. People are judged on how your team does."

For Saturday's game, Laurinaitis said he has "20 to 30" tickets reserved for friends and family members planning to attend. At last count, 22 people had told him they would be in attendance for the game. In addition at least 10 more people he knows, he said, already have season tickets to Minnesota games.

"I've got kids driving up to two hours away just to come and see me play," he said. "That means a lot to me to see that. It's exciting."

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