NFL Combine: Laurinaitis Is Worth The Wait

James Laurinaitis had the opportunity to leave Ohio State after his junior season, but made a pact with Head Coach Jim Tressel and decided to stay. After another solid season in '08, Laurinaitis finds himself in the midst of a deep LB class and has to show NFL scouts that he belongs in the first round. Scout.com's NFL Draft Analyst Chris Steuber profiles Laurinaitis from the NFL Scouting Combine.

It’s never good to reflect on the past; athletes are always told to concentrate on the present and focus on the task at hand. Take one day at a time, embrace the moment and capture the memories - you will remember them forever.

It was the moments that influenced Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis to stay in school after his junior year, a year in which he had a breakout season, accumulating 121 tackles, 8.5 for a loss, five sacks and two interceptions. Moments that, even though they didn’t all have positive outcomes, still made him want to get back out there and try again.


Laurinaitis is one of the most physical players in the country.
David Maxwell/Getty Images

When the Buckeyes lost their second attempt at a National Championship in consecutive seasons, for most players it would have been an easy out, especially if they were a lock to be a top-15 selection in the NFL Draft. But, Laurinaitis made a promise, and it was one he wanted to live up to. 

“I owed it to Ohio State [to stay],” Laurinaitis said. “They gave me a chance. I was only recruited by two schools out of high school, Minnesota and Ohio State, and when a team offers you a scholarship – a free chance to go to school and get an education and have a chance to play football at a place like that – I owed them that fourth year.”

“I told Coach Tressel that I was going to come here for four or five years; whatever it is, whether I redshirt or not. When I told him I was coming back, I said I told you I was coming here for at least four years, and I wanted to honor that.”

In those four years - three of them as a starter - the 6-foot-1, 244-pound Laurinaitis proved to be one of the premier defensive players in the country. He won the Nagurski Award as the nation’s best defensive player in 2006 and won the Butkus Award for most outstanding linebacker in 2007. Even though he didn’t win one of the top defensive awards this past season, Laurinaitis was consistent and recorded 130 tackles, seven for a loss, four sacks and two interceptions.

Laurinaitis is an outstanding instinctive player who has the unique ability to be a playmaker and a ferocious tackler on defense. He brings the complete package to the field and is a true competitor. He's an aggressive force who can shed blocks, and he has a nose for the ball. He's an excellent tackler who displays great technique. He anticipates the action extremely well and seems to always be in position to make a play. He excels in coverage and can turn defense into offense at any moment.

He’s a player who will have an immediate impact at the next level, and he compares favorably to Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher. When asked who he patterns his game after, Laurinaitis said, “When I first came to Ohio State, I made that decision over Minnesota because I wanted to be around the guy I thought was the best linebacker in the country, and that was A.J. [Hawk]. He had an unbelievable college career, and he’s starting to do really well in the NFL now. He’s still a guy that I look up to. He’s one of my mentors.”

“I’ve always liked the way Urlacher has played the game. The way that he played, I think it was two years ago against Arizona, where he basically took over in the fourth quarter was awesome. When you see a linebacker do that single handedly, it kind of gets you excited, and it’s encouraging. I’ve also admired Ray Lewis’ passion. You can’t be a linebacker and not say that guy doesn’t have passion. So, there are little things that I try to find that guys do well. I don’t think anybody can copycat anybody, because you will take yourself out of your own element.”

Not only is Laurinaitis never out of his element on the football field, but he’s also embraced the spotlight with open arms and handled it with poise beyond his years. He got accustomed to the spotlight at an early age, and it wasn’t because of his success on the football field or his days on the ice hockey rink in high school; it was through the eyes of his father, Joe, who many know as former WWE Superstar “Animal”.

The experience that Laurinaitis had watching his father perform in the ring and conduct promos after matches has helped him when it comes to speaking with the media.

“It’s helped a little bit, to be honest,” he said. “I don’t get shy amongst a lot of cameras and stuff, because when I was backstage watching my Dad doing live promos and all of that stuff; that was the life. I got to see guys like Hulk Hogan at times, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, who is my favorite wrestler. I just love the ‘Heartbreak Kid’.”

“It was an awesome childhood. I got a chance to see a lot of cool things, and I also got to see the business side of it too, which can be lonely at times. But my Dad did a great job of separating his job and being home with the family, and I think that helps at a time like this. You can get so stressed with what’s going to happen with your career in football now, and you have to have time to relax and separate the two.”


Laurinaitis' leadership is what makes him an instant impact prospect.
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

After declining his invitation to the Senior Bowl, many believed that Laurinaitis was in a relax mode and wanted to train on his own to prepare for the Scouting Combine. But, according to Laurinaitis, that wasn’t the case. Initially, he declined the invitation after speaking with Coach Tressel, but as the game got closer, Laurinaitis reconsidered and told his agent that he wanted to play.

In the end, Laurinaitis never made it to Mobile.

“The Monday before [the game], I got sick; I had the flu until that Thursday,” he said about his absence from the Senior Bowl. “My temperature got to 103.2; I had one of those CVS thermometers and they’re accurate… [Laughs]. I tried to workout on that Friday, run and everything at the Woody Hayes facility, and I just felt weak. I said, ‘I’m not going to go out and try to compete with these guys if I’m not going to be at my best.’ So, I called and said I’m sorry. The truth is I really did get sick. That’s why I’m excited to be here [Scouting Combine], to compete and do everything.”

Laurinaitis will finally workout in front of NFL scouts on Monday and try to elevate his draft stock higher in the first round. This year’ draft class is rich at the linebacker position, and Laurinaitis figures to be in the mix with Wake Forest’s Aaron Curry and the USC trio of Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews.

Laurinaitis isn’t fazed by the competition or the task at hand. He’s just looking for the opportunity to show what he can do and prove that the experience he enjoyed at Ohio State was worth the wait.

“I think the production I had on the field can sometimes speak for itself, but I’m excited for an opportunity like this to prove when we do drills without pads on, and you’re in space and your cutting and doing this, I’m not afraid to do it. I’m hoping that I’ll be an eye opener at that. I think doing the position drills; drills like the 5-10-5, and seeing how I do in that with my explosion and everything, I think teams will be like, ‘Ok, I didn’t know he had that.’ I’m just hoping to do what I do. I’m not trying to over think anything, because I know doing everything here will help regardless.”

 

A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: csteuber@scout.com.


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