Senior Retrospective: James Laurinaitis

With the 2008 football season over, Ohio State has said goodbye to a number of senior standouts who have been part of one of the nation's top programs over the past few seasons. With that in mind, today we start a series of Senior Retrospectives on the principal members of that group. Linebacker James Laurinaitis is up first.

Great things might not have been expected when linebacker James Laurinaitis committed to Ohio State in December 2004. The fact that he was a three-star prospect, according to Scout, and the No. 45 linebacker in the country made expectations at least tempered for the Plymouth (Minn.) Wayzata linebacker.

But while watching film of highly rated Minnesota defensive end Walker Ashley, the Ohio State coaching staff saw something it liked and extended Laurinaitis a scholarship during the 2004 season even though he was a verbal commitment of Minnesota. A visit to Columbus in mid-December swayed Laurinaitis, and he changed his commitment on that trip.

"It's just basically the whole family atmosphere," he said, adding that he felt his commitment to Minnesota had been rushed. "The whole coaching staff made me feel like I was part of the family right away. … I went out there and the players and everything just felt right."

The coup for Ohio State was complete a week after his commitment when Laurinaitis decided not to visit Minnesota a final time and affirmed his pledge to the Scarlet and Gray.

Little did OSU fans know what kind of coup it would turn into. Laurinaitis ended his Ohio State career as a three-time All-American, winning the Nagurski, Butkus and Lowe's Senior CLASS awards during a decorated career.

Laurinaitis finished with 375 tackles, good for seventh in Buckeye history, as well as 24.5 tackles for loss, 13 sacks and nine interceptions.

But at the time of his commitment, Laurinaitis was just happy to be coming to Columbus to work under standout linebackers already on the roster like A.J. Hawk, Anthony Schlegel and Bobby Carpenter.

"I thought that if I go somewhere, I want to go learn from the best that there are," Laurinaitis said. "To learn behind A.J. and Bobby and Schlegel and all those guys and pick up how they study, what their habits are off the field and stuff, I'm going to try to learn everything I can and put it into my game, and then we'll see how it works out the second year or whatnot."

It ended up taking Laurinaitis just 11 games to make an impact. He did not redshirt, playing in each of the first 10 games of his career with eight tackles mostly on special teams. In that 11th game, Carpenter suffered an injury on the first defensive series against Michigan, forcing Laurinaitis into the lineup for the rest of that game as well as the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame.

Though Laurinaitis made just one tackle over those two games, he earned valuable experience that made him ready to take over as the starting middle linebacker a year later on the No. 1 team in the nation.

He made his breakout in the second game of the season, making 13 tackles, forcing two fumbles and making an interception as Ohio State dropped No. 2 Texas by a 24-7 count in Austin.

"My dad said to me after the game, ‘Everything is going to change from here on out.' " Laurinaitis said recently in reflection. "I didn't really get what he was saying, I didn't really think it would. I thought I had way more to prove. I remember going down to Texas wondering if I would lose my job because we didn't play very well against Northern Illinois, if you remember they ran for like 200 yards against us."

At the time, he was typically humble about his performance that introduced him to a nation that knew him more as the son of professional wrestler Joe Laurinaitis.

"We knew coming into this game it was going to be a tremendous challenge. It was a fight out there and we were fortunate to come out on top," he said days after the game. "I was just trying to do my job for the benefit of the team. I was just fortunate to be in the right place at the right time."

As for his interception, Laurinaitis said, "I wouldn't have gotten my interception if the defensive line didn't pressure the quarterback. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time. It hit me in the chest."

He continued his excellent play throughout the rest of the year. He had an interception in each of the three games after Texas and added another against Illinois to end the year with five picks, second-most in OSU history for a linebacker behind Chris Spielman. He was the Buckeyes' defensive player of the week five times on the year while making 115 tackles and four sacks.

Those stats earned him the Nagurski Award as the nation's best defensive player as well as first-team All-Big Ten honors.

"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 … (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."

According to his teammates, if his nature off the field changed, it was a positive one.

"I think he became more humble," corner Malcolm Jenkins said. "I think he handled it and got more hungry and stayed humble throughout the process and became more of a leader. His confidence levels went up."

He continued to refine his game as a junior, again leading Ohio State to the national championship game while serving as a captain as a junior. For the second year in a row, had a fantastic game during the most important nonleague contest of the year, intercepting two critical passes during the team's road win against Washington.

During the fifth game of the year, he prepared to return to his home state to take on the Golden Gophers.

"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."

He didn't disappoint, making 15 tackles while leading the Buckeyes to a 30-7 win. He later topped that total with 19 tackles against Wisconsin and 18 against LSU while ending the campaign with a team-high 121 stops along with 8.5 TFL and five sacks. For those numbers, he was rewarded with the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker.

Even on the awards circuit, Laurinaitis continued to do all he could to get better at his game in an effort to stay ready for the national title game.

"I remember talking to A.J. and he said the worst thing about (the circuit) was not being able to work out," Laurinaitis said. "So the first thing I did was found out where the weight room was. Mostly it was just cardio and sit-ups just to stay in decent shape."

When the Buckeyes eventually capitulated in the championship game against LSU, Laurinaitis and his teammates had a decision to make. The linebacker was the last to go and joined most of his classmates in deciding to stay for a senior season.

"I know I can still improve as a player, and I know there is still much more to me and for the Buckeyes to accomplish," he said. "My love for this university, my love for the people of the state of Ohio, and my love for teammates and friends is so great that I want stay a Buckeye for another season. You only get to do this once, so I want to take full advantage."

As he later told Bill Greene, "To me, there are more important things in life than money. I just wasn't ready to walk away from this great experience. I wasn't ready to leave my teammates and these coaches. I get along with all the guys and they're my friends for life. I'm not sure you can have those close relationships with guys at the next level, where it's far more of a business."

A national championship was not the No. 1 thing on the list, though disappointment surely flowed when the Buckeyes lost to then-No. 1 USC and No. 3 Penn State to fall short of a third straight title game. Included, on the other hand, was another BCS bowl trip and the fifth straight win over Michigan, the team against which Laurinaitis began his career.

"To be able to say forever that you're a part of this team is something that I'll remember for the rest of my life," he said after the Senior Day win over U-M.

Laurinaitis' play didn't drop off during his senior year as he ended the campaign with 130 tackles to lead the team for the third straight year and repeated as the Big Ten defensive player of the year. Playing as a second-year captain, he added seven tackles for loss, four more sacks and two interceptions while earning All-America honors again.

"It's an unbelievable blessing to think of being a three-year All-American," Laurinaitis said. "I thank God every day for the amazing blessings that have happened in my life."

If that refrain sounds familiar, it should. As for his continued humble nature, he said, "I was raised that way. My parents told me when I was in high school when I was doing an interview, you always thank everybody else. Spread the credit around because you never do anything by yourself, ever, no matter what you're doing."

The fact is that much of Ohio State's defensive success over his three years can be traced to the continued excellence of the player who was in the middle. He's cemented himself near the top of the list when it comes to linebackers at a school that has had its share of excellent ones, though in true Laurinaitis form he decided not to speculate where he ranked on the chart.

"When I do a radio show with Mr. Spielman, I'm like a little kid," he said. "When A.J. or Bobby call, I still look up to those guys. I leave all the debating to other people. Everyone is great in their own right. I don't pay attention to it because it's so hard for me to get in a debate about who is better. I look at Andy Katzenmoyer and my eyes get wide, he's still way bigger than I am. When I came back I knew I had a chance to be a three-time All-American. I knew what A.J. did with being Big Ten defensive player of the year and I wanted to be that twice. But I think the thing that stands out more than anything is the fact I was able to be captain twice."

"As an athlete, you don't dwell on it. With me, it's more what I can do next to make myself better, not what I have done."

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