As James Laurinaitis has gotten bigger, his ego appears to have done the exact opposite.
Entering the 2006 season as one of many faceless members of the new Ohio State defense, Laurinaitis took little time establishing himself as one of the team’s leaders. By the time postseason awards were being announced, the sophomore linebacker had been crowned the nation’s top defensive player, taking home the Bronco Nagurski award.
But as the accolades came through, his teammates and coaches alike noticed him maintaining the same motivated focus he employed as a true freshman one season before.
“I know he got a lot of recognition as far as how good the team was and how good Quinn Pitcock was, but it never changed the personality he had nor the work ethic that he had,” OSU linebackers coach Luke Fickell said. “I always said that there’s very few guys that can handle it and I wasn’t worried for him. He is a mature kid and he is very humble.”
It was an evolution that became more visible on a game-by-game basis. After beginning the season as the team’s starting middle linebacker, Laurinaitis was charged with essentially being the team’s quarterback on defense.
It’s a role the soft-spoken linebacker somewhat reluctantly accepted.
“I think being a linebacker, it’s kind of a natural leadership,” he said. “(But) just because you’re a linebacker doesn’t make you an automatic leader.”
What helped solidify him as a leader was the performance he turned in as the Buckeyes took on No. 2 Texas in a nationally televised night road game. There, under the lights, Laurinaitis finished with a game-high 13 tackles, 2 forced fumbles and a 25-yard interception return, earning Big Ten defensive player of the week honors for his performance.
When the dust had settled on a 24-7 OSU victory, the Buckeyes had a firmly defensive leader. By the time the season wrapped up, Laurinaitis had been named the team’s defensive M.V.P. five times. In addition to taking home the Nagurski award, the native of Minnesota was a finalist for the Butkus and Bednarik awards, given annually to the nation’s top linebacker and defensive player of the year, respectively.
Fellow linebacker Larry Grant said he was not surprised with the success Laurinaitis had on the field once he saw the work he puts in off the field as well.
“James knew and he understood that a lot was going to be put on his back, so while everyone else was taking their spare time and sleeping James was here at the Woody Hayes watching film and reading his playbook, doing as much as he can to actually be a leader in this defense and be a great player here,” Grant said.
That work ethic has carried over into fall camp this season. In an effort to better take advantage of all the opportunities the newly renovated Woody Hayes Athletic Center has to offer, Laurinaitis said he will likely be sleeping there throughout the duration of camp.
Perhaps even more impressive than his team-leading 115 tackles and 5 interceptions was the fact that his success did not go to his head, according to junior cornerback Malcolm Jenkins.
“I think he became more humble,” Jenkins said. “I think he handled and got more hungry and stayed humble throughout the process and became more of a leader. His confidence levels went up.”
That is something Fickell said he saw in Laurinaitis when, as a true freshman, he stepped in for an injured Bobby Carpenter on the second play of the Michigan game in 2005.
“He came in here as a freshman and he didn’t say a lot because of the guys he had in front of him but he had an unbelievable amount of confidence,” Fickell said. “He had those things that you don’t see too often. I think the best thing that happened to him was he had success early.”
Now the Buckeyes are hoping he can parlay that early success into even greater things this season.