CFN Conversation With James Laurinaitis
Ohio State LB James Laurinaitis
Ohio State LB James Laurinaitis
Posted Jul 27, 2008

Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis should probably be off making a ton of money in the NFL right now, but instead he's heading the loaded Buckeyes. Pete Fiutak talks with the star of the veteran defense.

Preview 2008

Conversation with James Laurinaitis

2008 CFN Ohio State Preview

Interviewed by
Pete Fiutak

In one 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 spot.

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.

JL: Yeah.

CFN: What positives could you take away from the two national title losses?

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 multi-millionaire.

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 here.

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 drama.

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 best shot.

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.