Conversation with James Laurinaitis
2008 CFN Ohio State Preview
of the biggest upsets of the 2008 season, Ohio State linebacker
James Laurinaitis decided to come back for his senior year when he
could’ve gone pro. In a weak year for linebackers, he would've been
the first one taken and a near-certain top 20 overall pick, but now
has a shot to finish up his career as, arguably, one of the five
greatest linebackers to ever play college football. Or at least one
of the most accomplished.
The winner of the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker, and
the Nagurski Award (in 2006) as the nation's best defensive player,
he has made 236 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, nine sacks and seven
interceptions in the last two seasons, highlighted by a 19-tackle
day last year in the win over Wisconsin. Don’t blame him for the
loss to LSU, he made 18 stops, but numbers don't begin to show just
what he means to the defense. A tough leader and versatile player
able to operate inside and out, he’ll be the signature star on yet
another national title caliber team.
CFN: With all the attention you receive and all the interviews
you have to do, are you used to it all yet?
James Laurinaitis: It’s just part of the job, really. If you
come to Ohio State, and if you become a big-time player, you have to
expect that you’re going to have to do lots and lots of interviews
and that you’re always going to be in the spotlight. Sometimes you
wish you could just go home, but you know what you’re getting into
when you come here.
CFN: Considering you weren’t exactly a five-star, can’t-miss
recruit, you couldn’t have really prepared for this.
JL: Not at all. I looked at my goal sheet from my freshman
year and my hope was to make the All-Big Ten team as a senior. I
never expected to do anything more than that before then considering
how many great players are here. I wasn’t really prepared for this
at all, and I wasn’t expecting it.
CFN: How much does having a father like yours prepare you for the
media, and what’s the best thing you’ve learned from him as it
applies to football?
JL: I think I was comfortable with it all right away because
of him. He taught me to be extremely grateful for anything that
happens and to enjoy the spotlight, but to always be extremely
humble. He helped me with always saying the right thing and to
spread the spotlight around. Always talk up the other team and
whenever someone says something about you, talk about how everyone
else helped you out, and that’s true. When you make a lot of plays
and have a lot of success, it’s because the rest of the guys around
you are doing their jobs. If I’m making tackles and doing things
well, it’s because I’m not blocked thanks to my line, and so on. As
far as football, I learned from my dad that you always have to work
hard every day no matter what. Somewhere, someone is working their
butt off to be better than you and will try to work to take your
CFN: So what’s the over-under on how fast you say you take it one
game at a time?
JL: Soon. Yeah, that’s all part of it too.
CFN: What’s the off-season like this year compared to two years
ago? Now you have to go the pain of losing yet another national
title all over again.
JL: We have an attitude that we expect to be great again. The
thing that’s different this year as opposed to last year is that
we’re far more mature overall. We can do more things, we can throw
in more plays, we know how to handle every situation. The guys who
are back here now have been through everything; there’s nothing we
haven’t seen before. You can push us more physically and more
mentally because the coaches know we can handle it. We don’t need to
work on the basics with this team.
CFN: A lot of the players and coaches talked last year about
losing the national title as a motivating factor going into 2007. Is
the LSU loss going to be a motivator, or is the team past that as a
reason to get riled up? In other words are you guys more
business-like or more emotional after the LSU loss?
JL: I think we just put it all in the past and go forward.
We’re focusing on the next thing we’re going to do. All we can do
now is keep working out, keep practicing hard, and keep pushing
ourselves to get better. All we can do is get to the next step.
CFN: So you have to take it one game at a time.
CFN: What positives could you take away from the two national
JL: From the first one we could take away that when we go on
a bowl trip we have to be totally focused. I don’t think we had the
right mindset going into the Florida game and we weren’t mentally
ready for what they had for us. A lot of the guys sort of thought
that with the team we had and with the roster we had that we could
just go out there and win without a problem, and obviously that
wasn’t going to be the case. We need to be ready to go at all times.
Last year the preparation was unbelievable. We were fully focused,
our minds were right where they should’ve been, and we were ready.
It was completely different, but what we learned from that game is
that we have to stay composed. We had several chances to make plays
and turn things around and we didn’t take advantage. We didn’t make
it happen. If we can combine the focus and the composure, we can
probably beat anyone.
CFN: Is the SEC faster than the Big Ten?
JL: No, it’s not. The SEC is unbelievably competitive from
top to bottom. The Big Ten plays a different type of football, but
it’s not that they’re faster than us. Look at Chris Wells on his
touchdown run against LSU. No one could catch him in the open field.
We can run just as well as they can; it’s just the style of play. I
have a lot of respect for the SEC, and yeah, they probably get more
respect because of what happened the last few years …
CFN: And it’s not like you lost to Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. There
are at least 116 other teams that would’ve lost to 2006 Florida and
2007 LSU in those national title games.
JL: It’s really just that the SEC has had a lot of success.
When you have such a passionate fan base and with so many good
teams, they’re going to bash and get all fired up when they’re good.
It really is a country divided, I mean, it’s the Southeastern
Conference, and the Big Ten obviously the Midwest, and that’s great
for college football. That’s what it’s all about. Now I hope we can
bring it back the Big Ten’s way. Our fan base is passionate, too.
CFN: (Note: This interview was done the Friday before the
2008 NFL Draft.) Yeah, I’m sure you’re happy with your
decision and yeah, you can’t change it now and you have to look
forward, but today, of all days, you have to be thinking a little
bit about what this weekend would’ve been like had you gone pro.
JL: Really, I haven’t thought about it. I keep asking Vernon
(Gholston) about it and what the whole process is like, and it’s
interesting to see how the comparisons come in and where the players
stack up with other players and how everyone looks for problems and
pumps up the good things. I’ve become pretty good friends with Chris
Long and I become friendly with Glenn Dorsey, and there are guys
from my high school like Dominique Barber from Minnesota and Marcus
Coleman the center from Wisconsin, who are all in the process, so I
get to see what it’s all like. It’s kind of exciting to see guys
that you know getting picked. I’ve watched this all since I was a
little kid, and now I know people who get to go through it.
CFN: I’ve talked about this with past Buckeye players. It also
has to be weird to be at a place like Ohio State where one day one
of your friends is just a college guy and teammate, and then he’s a
JL: You come here and you expect to see that and you expect
to succeed. In our weight room there this huge banner with all the
first round draft picks we’ve had. That’s the level of Ohio State,
and you expect that to be that way here. You expect things to be at
that level all the time. They have all the facilities and all the
assistance you could ever ask for to succeed. That’s the norm around
CFN: So seeing the process and knowing nearly flawless prospects
like Long and Dorsey and Gholston, and seeing how everyone tries to
look for their weaknesses, what’s the knock on you going to be?
JL: I have no idea. You have to just laugh at it a little bit
because it’s so crazy …
CFN: Do you have loose hips?
JL: Yeah, but I think my left arm is a little shorter than
the other. They’ll find something since they have to create a little
CFN: I always feel funny asking this. What are your measureables?
JL: I don’t really even know. I’m more about just being a
football player. I think there’s an overemphasis on the measureables
and not nearly enough focus on whether or not the guy can actually
play. Yeah, people go nuts over a guy who’ll run really, really
fast, but is he really fast and running into a block, or is he
really fast and making plays? If you have a guy who has all the
measurables and can really play, like (former Buckeye linebacker and
current Green Bay Packer) A.J. Hawk, then that’s what you want. Then
you have someone who’s a no-brainer. But I think that some of these
guys can run really fast or can jump really high and then don’t show
up on film, so you’re taking a big chance on them because they might
not be able to shed a block, take the right angles, or just play.
It’s not just me that feels that way; it’s a lot of players around
here. There’s a lot of emphasis on getting bigger and stronger and
faster, but it doesn’t mean anything if you’re not doing the work in
the film room and if you can’t make it happen on the field.
CFN: I’ve always loved hockey and know all too well how much
toughness and skill and balance goes into playing the game,
especially at the Minnesota high school level. How did playing help
you on the football field?
JL: Hockey helped me a lot with the muscle development that
you wouldn’t normally have. There’s a different set of skills and
muscles you need to use to play, but more than anything else hockey
taught me about angles. You’re moving really fast and you’re moving
really fast all the time. You have all these little guys who are
cruising around trying to get around you, and that has helped me on
the field when it comes to trying to chase down little running backs
and receivers. Hockey showed me how to get to those guys quicker and
at the right angle. Football players have no idea how hard it is to
play hockey. They have no idea how hard it is to skate, and stick
handle and the balance involved. You learn how to play with your
head up at all times and to see everything around you.
CFN: (Former Minnesota head coach) Glen Mason’s pitch
wasn’t good enough to make you a Gopher?
JL: I had two offers: Minnesota and Ohio State. In the end it
was the family atmosphere created by Coach Tressel at Ohio State. At
the end of the day, the ultimate dream is to be in the NFL, and no
one does that better than Ohio State. If you can’t do it coming
here, you can’t do it, so if the NFL wasn’t going to work out for
me, I was at least going to know by coming here that I gave it my
CFN: Who’s more nuts: Minnesota high school hockey fans, pro
wrestling fans, or Ohio State Buckeye die-hards?
JL: Ohio State football fans. Without question. They’re
crazy, but in a great way.
CFN: What advice do you have for Terrelle Pryor? Again, you
weren’t exactly an uber-recruit, but you did have success early on
and you’ve had to deal with the wacky Buckeye fans and all the
scrutiny that comes with being a star in Columbus.
JL: Work harder as the expectations increase. When the
expectations are high, that motivates me to want to live up to the
hype. It’s much different for him than it was for me because the
expectations are so high to begin with. He has to stay hungry and he
has to play like he has to beat everyone out. He has to work harder
than everyone and remember what he had to do to get to the level
he’s at. Yeah, a guy that talented is going to get the spotlight no
matter what, but to become the No. 1 recruit you had to have worked
for it. He’ll have to keep doing that.
CFN: How can you look at the schedule and see that trip to Los
Angeles in mid-September and not think about it? (Note: I
didn’t catch it at the time, but Laurinaitis, who like all Buckeye
players are coached and drilled from day one about how to answer a
question about a future game, starts to say he’s “taking it one…”
and then he swallows the “game at a time.” Did you also catch the
earlier reference to the “family atmosphere?”)
JL: (Pause) We saw USC was going to be on the schedule
three years ago and you realize how big a game it’s going to be
between two national powerhouses. Yeah, you look at that game and
you can’t help but get excited for it. That’s what you play for
here. These are the games you want to be a part of.
CFN: Last year, all Michigan’s Chad Henne and Mike Hart
talked about was coming back for their senior years to have a chance
to beat Ohio State, win a bowl game, and play for a national title,
sort of in that order, and then they came out and did that
against Appalachian State and Oregon. Their season, even with two of
their goals still out there to achieve, was ruined. It’s different
for Ohio State, but kind of like Michigan last year, all the focus,
outside of the USC game, is on the end of the season. Is this year
going to be a failure if you don’t win the national title?
JL: I don’t know about that. I mean, winning the national
title is obviously our goal, but yeah, we saw what happened to
Michigan, and examples like that are going to remind us that we do
have to focus on getting there first. It’s still a lofty goal, and
we know more than anyone else how hard it is to get there and what
goes into getting in that game, but you can’t come back for that
reason. You can’t come back just for one game. Yeah, if we do
everything right then we could be back there. But no matter who you
are, playing for the national title is really, really hard. The guys
who came back had to come back for the right reasons, like
education, our friendships that’ll last a lifetime, and the fun of
being in college. That’s why we came back, not for one game. We came
back to be college students.
CFN: Are Buckeye fans able to get that? You guys are treated like
pros by the media and fans, and granted, you do get help and
assistance, but do people around Columbus get that you do actually
have to go to class and study and do all the things real students
have to do?
JL: People don’t realize how much of a job this really is.
You have homework and you have to study and you have to focus on
school every bit as much, if not more, than football. True fans of
Ohio State football will get that, and I think most of them do
understand that we’re working hard to win all the time, but we also
have other things we have to take care of, too. Even so, this is
Ohio State and you’re expected to win. You need the determination
and the hard work to do both.