James Laurinaitis is an all-time Buckeye great, but he’ll be standing on the opposite sideline when Notre Dame plays at Ohio Stadium in its Sept. 3 season opener.
Laurinaitis is looking forward to his return to Columbus. After all, the Wayzata, Minnesota, native was a Butkus Award winner and three-time All-American at Ohio State who made the Ohio capital his home after an eight-year NFL career with the St. Louis Rams and New Orleans Saints.
He would likely still be in Columbus, where he was working as a radio host for 97.1 The Fan, had Brian Kelly not left Notre Dame for the Bayou, allowing then-Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman — Laurinaitis’ teammate and best friend at Ohio State — to take the head coaching position. When Freeman called and asked Laurinaitis to join his coaching staff, it was an offer he could not refuse.
“I was thankful for the opportunity that Marcus gave me,” Laurinaitis said Monday during a press conference at Notre Dame. “He said, ‘I don’t know what we’ll have (available) for you,’ and I said, ‘I don’t care what you have. I just want to be there and have a chance to get my foot in the door.’”
Laurinaitis said he took the position primarily because of the chance he had to coach with Freeman. The two share a relationship that dates back to Laurinaitis’ first year at Ohio State in 2005.
Freeman was set to be a backup linebacker to Bobby Carpenter that season, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the season opener against Miami (Ohio), placing Laurinaitis in the two-deep as a freshman. Laurinaitis said Freeman could have focused on himself and his recovery. Instead, Freeman helped prepare him for the journey ahead.
“His character was helping me learn the playbook as a freshman,” Laurinaitis said. “That’s back before kids showed up in the spring and all that. I showed up in Columbus the day before camp. Like, the day before camp. There were no summer workouts. I stayed in the Red Roof Inn on Olentangy River Road and showed up with my dad and two duffel bags. Let’s go to camp.
“I thought I would probably redshirt, right? Marcus gets hurt and helps me. It’s like, ‘Oh shoot. Now I’m the backup to Bobby Carpenter.’ That’s when Marcus and I became friends. To be able to work with him now, it’s awesome.”
“He said, ‘I don’t know what we’ll have (available) for you,’ and I said, ‘I don’t care what you have. I just want to be there and have a chance to get my foot in the door.’”– James Laurinaitis on joining Marcus Freeman’s staff
Laurinaitis is a graduate assistant under defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Al Golden, who is also in his first year with the Irish. Golden brings 30 years of coaching experience to South Bend, Indiana, including several different stops in college football and the NFL.
“Between Coach Freeman who is extremely smart and a great defensive mind, Coach Golden with the people he’s coached and being extremely smart and the other assistants who are brilliant as well, we mesh together to try and do what’s best for our players,” Laurinaitis said. “I think we can help them a lot. You can see how far they’ve come from spring ball and where we are now this fall.”
Notre Dame returns six linebackers with in-game experience for 2022, led by redshirt juniors JD Bertrand and Jack Kiser. Bertrand recorded 101 tackles, seven tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks last season, while Kiser added 45 tackles, one tackle for loss, two interceptions and five pass breakups.
The two top recruits in Notre Dame’s seventh-ranked 2022 class are also linebackers: five-star and No. 34 overall prospect Jaylen Sneed and four-star Josh Burnham. The Irish also added four-stars Niuafe Tuihalamaka and Nolan Ziegler at the position.
Still, Laurinaitis said he and Golden need to see more consistency from the group if Notre Dame is to beat Ohio State in September. In watching tape of the Buckeyes’ offense, Laurinaitis believes his unit will have its hands full against C.J. Stroud, TreVeyon Henderson, Jaxon Smith-Njigba and company.
“There’s a quote, ‘The problem is you think you have time.’ You don’t. You make a mistake early, but it’s all good – we’ll get it right,” Laurinaitis said. “No, we don’t have time for mistakes. We know the team in Columbus right now and how talented they are. You watch them on film, and you’re like, ‘Oh gosh, that’s a talented bunch.’ You can’t have all these little mistakes and think they’re alright. We need to eliminate those. There’s a sense of urgency.”
Ohio State and Notre Dame will kick off in 26 days. It will be a top-five matchup in Columbus after the USA TODAY Coaches Poll ranked the Buckeyes as the second-best team in the nation and the Irish three spots behind as the fifth-best program.
“It’s great for us because there’s no lack of motivation for our guys,” Freeman said last week of preparing for the contest. “So we can continue to remind them of the great challenge that we have on Sept. 3. Being an ultimate competitor, you want to play the best. What better way to measure your team than to play Ohio State.”