Four Kings: Chris Spielman, A.J. Hawk, James Laurinaitis and Andy Katzenmoyer Selected As Ohio State’s Greatest Linebackers of All-Time

By Dan Hope and Matt Gutridge on June 24, 2023 at 8:35 am
Chris Spielman, A.J. Hawk, James Laurinaitis and Andy Katzenmoyer
Photos via USA TODAY Sports

Who are Ohio State’s four greatest players of all-time at each position? We’re asking Eleven Warriors readers to help us decide.

After starting the Four Kings series last week with a look at Ohio State’s best quarterbacks ever, we switched sides of the ball this week to choose Ohio State’s four greatest linebackers, which proved to be no easy task.

Ohio State’s illustrious linebacker history includes three College Football Hall of Famers and more than a dozen first-team All-Americans, but only four of them could make the “Mount Rushmore” at the position. As it turned out, two of the three Ohio State linebackers already in the College Football Hall of Fame didn’t even make the top four, finishing fifth and sixth in a tight vote behind a quartet of superstars who patrolled the middle of Ohio State’s defense between the 1980s and the 2000s.

Our readers’ choices for Ohio State’s Four Kings at linebacker are below, listed in order of the total number of reader votes each of them received. Eleven Warriors writers Dan Hope and Matt Gutridge share their own picks for the Buckeyes’ four best linebackers of all-time at the bottom of the article.

Chris Spielman (1984-87)

Spielman received over 200 more votes than any other linebacker in our reader poll, making the top-four lists of more than 90% of our voters. More than 35 years after his Ohio State career ended, Spielman is still viewed as the quintessential Buckeye linebacker, and with good reason.

Throughout his four years at Ohio State, Spielman tallied a whopping 546 total tackles, including a school-record 283 solo tackles. He also recorded 30 tackles for loss, 11 interceptions and five forced fumbles. His 205 tackles during the 1986 season are the second-most in a single season in program history, and his 29 tackles against Michigan in that same season are tied for the Buckeyes’ single-game record. No Ohio State linebacker who has played since Spielman has come within 138 tackles of his career mark.

Spielman was a two-time All-American (consensus in 1986, unanimous in 1987), a three-time All-Big Ten honoree and the 1987 Lombardi Award winner. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

A.J. Hawk (2002-05)

Hawk started his Ohio State career by helping the Buckeyes win a national championship as a backup linebacker in 2002, then emerged as an elite defensive playmaker over the next three years. Hawk recorded triple-digit tackle seasons in each of his final three years as a Buckeye, finishing his four-year stint with 394 total tackles, 41 tackles for loss, 14 sacks and seven interceptions.

Hawk earned All-Big Ten honors in all three of those seasons as well as consensus All-American honors in 2004 and unanimous All-American honors in 2005, when he also won the Lombardi Award and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

He went on to be selected with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft by the Green Bay Packers, making him the second-highest drafted linebacker in Ohio State history.

James Laurinaitis (2005-08)

Laurinaitis is one of only eight players in Ohio State history to be named an All-American three times and is the most recent Buckeye to achieve that feat, earning consensus All-American honors in each of his final three seasons at Ohio State with unanimous recognition for his junior season in 2007.

“Little Animal” had at least 115 tackles in each of those three seasons, finishing his Ohio State tenure with 375 total tackles, 23 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks and 10 interceptions for his four-year Buckeye career. He won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy as college football’s best defensive player in 2006, won the Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker in 2007 and is one of just three players ever to win the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award twice, receiving it in both 2007 and 2008.

A two-time team captain, Laurinaitis also helped lead the Buckeyes to a pair of BCS National Championship Game appearances, setting a national championship game record with his 18 total tackles in Ohio State’s loss to LSU to conclude the 2007 season. Laurinaitis is now helping coach Ohio State’s current linebackers in his first season as a graduate assistant for the Buckeyes.

Andy Katzenmoyer (1996-98)

Katzenmoyer became an immediate starter as a true freshman and was a force in the middle of Ohio State’s defense for all three of his seasons as a Buckeye, tallying 256 total tackles with 50 tackles for loss – the most ever for an Ohio State linebacker – and 18 sacks. His 23 tackles for loss as a freshman in 1996, when he earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors, also remain the most in a single season by an Ohio State linebacker.

“Big Kat” went on to win the Butkus Award as college football’s best linebacker in 1997, while he earned All-Big Ten honors in all three of his seasons as a Buckeye before entering the 1999 NFL draft, in which he was selected in the first round (No. 28 overall) by the New England Patriots.

The only Buckeye to wear Archie Griffin’s iconic No. 45 since Griffin, Katzenmoyer certainly did the number justice with his play for the scarlet and gray, as he’s still regarded as one of Ohio State’s best linebackers ever 25 years after playing his final snap as a Buckeye.

Honorable Mentions

Ohio State’s second-team linebackers on its all-time team could rival the first-team linebackers from just about any other school.

Top 10 LBs by Votes
Linebacker Percentage of Ballots
A.J. HAWK 59.8% (445 VOTES)
Note: All percentages were multiplied by four
from their vote totals since each voter was able
to vote for up to four linebackers.

The linebacker with the biggest case for being snubbed from our Four Kings is Tom Cousineau, who was so talented that he went on to become Ohio State’s first No. 1 overall NFL draft pick. A two-time All-American, Cousineau recorded a whopping 569 tackles over the course of his four years at Ohio State (1975-78) and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2016.

Another linebacker with a strong argument for being snubbed is Randy Gradishar, who earned his own induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1998. Considered by Woody Hayes to be the best linebacker he ever coached, Gradishar earned All-Big Ten honors in all three of his playing years at Ohio State, earning consensus All-American honors in 1972 and unanimous All-American honors in 1973, when he also finished sixth in Heisman Trophy voting.

Ryan Shazier, who recorded 315 total tackles and 45.5 tackles for loss while earning All-American honors once and All-Big Ten honors twice from 2011-13, finished seventh in our voting as Ohio State’s top linebacker of the 2010s. Marcus Marek, a three-time All-Big Ten selection and 1982 consensus All-American who is Ohio State’s all-time leading tackler with 572 tackles, rounded out the top eight.

1985 All-American Pepper Johnson and 2002 All-American Matt Wilhelm were the only other linebackers to receive double-digit votes from 11W readers.

Dan’s Picks

Tom Cousineau, Chris Spielman, James Laurinaitis and Ryan Shazier

Cousineau being left out of the top four is the biggest surprise of this series to me so far, as I considered him to be a no-brainer selection. Only four linebackers have ever been selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, so the fact that Cousineau was good enough to be one of them should have cemented his place in Ohio State’s Four Kings at linebacker.

Spielman and Laurinaitis were also easy choices for me, as Spielman is the first name I think of when I think of linebacker greatness at Ohio State while Laurinaitis’ three All-American selections and multiple national awards make him the most decorated linebacker in program history. It felt wrong not to vote for Gradishar – who also belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, by the way – but I gave my last vote to Shazier, whose athleticism and playmaking range would make him the first Ohio State linebacker I’d draft to play in a modern game.

Matt's Picks

Randy Gradishar, Chris Spielman, James Laurinaitis and A.J. Hawk

Man, this was tough. How deep is Ohio State at linebacker? I could have listed any combination of Cousineau, Johnson, Katzenmoyer, Marek, Shazier, Steve Tovar and Wilhelm as my Four Kings and easily made an argument for each player.

Instead, I will take the easy route and make Ohio State’s unanimous All-Americans my Four Kings at linebacker: Gradishar, Spielman, Laurinaitis and Hawk.

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