James Laurinaitis: Linebacker Athleticism and Experience Not an Issue, Defensive Scheme Needs Adjusting

By Colin Hass-Hill on October 22, 2018 at 7:31 pm
James Laurinaitis

No, you're not the only person trying to figure out what has happened to Ohio State's defense.

Former Buckeye linebacker James Laurinaitis, a three-time All-American and eight-year NFL veteran, hopped on the Audible – a podcast hosted by The Athletic's Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel – on Monday to discuss Ohio State's 49-20 loss to Purdue this weekend. 

"I don't think anyone was really surprised that they dropped the game," Laurinaitis said. "The disappointing thing was kind of how they lost the game and the amount."

The Boilermakers racked up 539 yards of total offense on Saturday with 378 yards coming through the air and 161 yards coming on the ground. David Blough completed 25-of-43 passes with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Purdue's yards-per-carry average (5.6 ypc) nearly doubled Ohio State's average (3 ypc).

Laurinaitis said the issues on defense are "a little bit of everything." 

Like the rest of the Ohio State fanbase, Laurinaitis was left searching for answers, especially among the Billy Davis-led linebackers. Tuf Borland, Malik Harrison, Pete Werner and Baron Browning entered the season with 10 combined starts, but Laurinaitis doesn't believe that to be a worthwhile explanation.

"I don't like the inexperience route because by this time in the season, you have plenty of experience," Laurinaitis said. "Even if you were a first-time starter, you have plenty of experience. And when my group of linebackers and we replaced A.J. Hawk and Bobby and all these guys who had played for a long time, we were so well prepared by coach Fickell that there's no excuses. When you step in at Ohio State and you play, the whole experience, that goes out the window. You should be ready."

He also dismissed the notion that Ohio State's linebackers aren't athletic enough.

"The athletes that they have at linebacker are really impressive," Laurinaitis said. "I was able to go check them out in fall camp, in spring. They are 10 times more athletic than a lot of the guys that I played with there at school. They're special athletes."

Laurinaitis said he doesn't know where the "disconnect" is coming from, but doubled down on a point he made on Twitter on Saturday.

He called it "impossible" for linebackers to make plays if they play at the heels of the defensive line. It can be harder to recognize formations, see the splits of the offensive linemen and diagnose pass and run keys from the offensive linemen, Laurinaitis said.

When re-watching the game, Laurinaitis said he freeze-framed 20 plays when Purdue either had a wide-open receiver or a huge hole up the middle. And one week after watching Minnesota's Tyler Johnson take advantage of a safety playing man-to-man coverage just one week prior, he was baffled at how Ohio State did not adjust to improve that aspect of its defense.

"And the first snap of the game, it's Rondale Moore lined up on a safety in man-to-man coverage playing 12 yards off, and they never adjusted," Laurinaitis said. "There was a third down where you had a linebacker, Malik Harrison, lined up man-to-man with no help on Rondale Moore. And so you have to wonder is that scheme that just says, 'Hey, there's an adjustment where if we put some of our best talent in the slot, they're going to cover it with the linebacker or safety.' I can't think of many NFL linebackers that could cover Rondale Moore with no help across the middle of the field.

"So, there's a lot of questions that need to be answered, and I think that's why during this bye week, a lot of these coaches are going to say, 'Hey, maybe we've been able to do some of these things scheme-wise in the past, but maybe the guys that we had in the past, the Denzel Wards, all them, they're not here. They're not in this room, so we need to adjust and maybe change up the scheme a little bit to help our guys out.' And, heck, if it's too much for them, scale it back, make it easier."

Laurinaitis also said Ohio State must solve its defensive issues because Nebraska, its next opponent, "can move the ball offensively down the field."

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