James Laurinaitis Making An Immediate Impression on Ohio State Linebackers, Recruits in First Year on Coaching Staff

By Dan Hope on June 29, 2023 at 8:35 am
James Laurinaitis

While James Laurinaitis is in his first year on Ohio State’s coaching staff and just his second year in coaching overall, he needed little introduction when the Buckeyes hired him as a graduate assistant linebackers coach in January.

After all, Laurinaitis is one of the greatest linebackers in Ohio State history. He’s one of only eight players in program history to be named a first-team All-American in three different seasons, and he went on to play in the NFL for eight years.

“Whenever I first heard he was coming in, I looked at his résumé and it’s freaking ridiculous, like something out of a movie,” Steele Chambers said this spring.

Given that, Laurinaitis’ words have carried a lot of weight for Ohio State’s linebackers in their first offseason being coached by him. Because Laurinaitis actually played the position at Ohio State and in the NFL, Chambers indicated recently that Laurinaitis’ coaching has resonated with him even more than that of Jim Knowles, Ohio State’s defensive coordinator and primary linebackers coach, and other coaches he’s had in Columbus.

“A lot of what you say just has more gravity to it naturally because we know as a group that you've been there,” Chambers said during a recent conversation with Laurinaitis featured on Ohio State’s “Tradition Talk” video series. “You've gone through it, you've gone through all of the struggles that we have, so it just has more gravity. It just means a lot more to us.

“I love (former graduate assistant linebackers coach Koy McFarland), shoutout to Koy. Coach Knowles, all of them. You're just a little more football-savvy as far as ‘Do this with your hands, get off this block this way,’ and we know we can really trust you because you've done it. You've gone through all that stuff. You've gone through being put on your ass here and there … It just means more that you’ve really gone through the struggles that we’ve gone through.”

Chambers is far from the only Ohio State linebacker who feels like he’s already gotten better because of what Laurinaitis has taught them.

“Just in the little bit he's been here, I've learned so much from him,” redshirt freshman linebacker Gabe Powers said this spring. “Talking about outside zones, how to take on blocks, your footwork; he's helped us so much just in the little time he's been here.”

Redshirt sophomore linebacker Reid Carrico said Laurinaitis has helped him refine his technique.

“Little things, little minor details, that he picked up along the way, whether it was when he was with the Rams or when he was here in college,” Carrico said of what Laurinaitis has brought to the linebacker room. “Obviously, he's been exposed to some great coaches. So his football mind is huge.”

Chambers says Laurinaitis teaches football in a way that everyone in the linebacker room can learn from him regardless of where they’re at in their development.

“I think you did a good job with that, like tailoring everyone in a certain way, but then at the same time, just like giving us like the base fundamentals of football,” Chambers said during the Tradition Talk video. “Everyone’s got their own style of game, everyone plays a certain way, but at the end of the day, football, it is like a fundamental game with just like basics that everyone has to know. Just like mentality for our position, hands, stuff like that. So being able to tailor everyone differently, but at the same time, still teaching and preaching all those basic fundamentals that you need as a linebacker. I think that’s something that you’ve really helped us with.”

Beyond his football accolades and knowledge, Ohio State’s linebackers have also been drawn to Laurinaitis’ personality. Just weeks after he had returned to Ohio State, the players he is now helping coach already felt like they could trust him.

“I love Coach Laurinaitis. That's my guy,” C.J. Hicks said in March. “He just got here a few weeks ago and shoot, I think all of us clicked with him very fast. He's a good coach and good guy. I appreciate him.”

While Laurinaitis’ name and picture can be found all over the walls of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center because of what he accomplished during his own playing career, his players have found him to be humble and approachable.

“He's a hell of a guy. I love the dude,” Chambers told reporters this spring. “You can still talk to him about anything. And he's a hell of a coach.”

Carrico believes it’s a “huge advantage” for Ohio State’s linebackers to have Laurinaitis back in Columbus.

“To have a guy like that to be around and talk to the game with you, because they've done it … it's obviously a big advantage,” Carrico said. “It’s great, really. I mean, it's really enjoyable learning the game from him.”

“A lot of what you say just has more gravity to it naturally because we know as a group that you've been there.”– Steele Chambers to James Laurinaitis

Beyond the impact Laurinaitis can make on the field for the Buckeyes (as a graduate assistant, he’s allowed to coach on the field during practices even though he’s not one of the 10 full-time assistant coaches), he’s also making a difference right away on the recruiting trail. Payton Pierce, who became the first linebacker to commit to Ohio State since Laurinaitis’ return when he committed to the Buckeyes in April, cited his relationship with Laurinaitis – which dates back to when Laurinaitis was a graduate assistant at Notre Dame last year – as a primary reason for his interest in Ohio State.

“I’ve got a feeling having coach Laurinaitis now as a coach for Ohio State will just make their defense even better,” Pierce told Eleven Warriors in March. “It's funny, because he's touring around the building, and his face is all over the walls with all these accolades. And it's like, you'd never know if you just didn't know who he was, he's just so humble and such a good guy.”

Fellow 2024 linebacker commit Garrett Stover was already committed to the Buckeyes before Laurinaitis’ arrival, but Stover’s excitement to play for Ohio State has also grown with the opportunity to play for Laurinaitis next year.

“I love him to death, too,” Stover said in May. “He’s great. I first met him when he was at Notre Dame and I went to their camp and he really took me under his wing and really liked how I play the game and how I was coachable and everything and we kind of built the relationship right from there. We stayed in touch after that, and when I knew he was coming to Ohio State, it made my commitment that much better.”

Ohio State’s top remaining linebacker target in the 2024 class, Kyngstonn Viliamu-Asa, told Eleven Warriors earlier this week that he also has a great relationship with Laurinaitis dating back to when Laurinaitis was at Notre Dame, which could help the Buckeyes’ chances of landing Viliamu-Asa over the Fighting Irish as they continue to battle for his commitment.

“Our relationship goes back a little bit, but being at Ohio State and coming through that program, he was showing me around and showing everything that it has to offer,” Viliamu-Asa said following his official visit to OSU this past weekend. “Being able to be coached by a guy that’s been through it and has gone places that I’m trying to go, along with learning from one of the best to ever come through the program is a unique opportunity.”

Laurinaitis’ potential to make an even greater impact on the recruiting trail once he’s allowed to go on the road as a recruiter might be the biggest incentive for Ohio State to find a spot for him on its full-time coaching staff sooner rather than later. Of course, he first must prove that he’s ready to be a full-time assistant as an on-field coach, and that will be judged in part by how Ohio State’s linebackers perform this season once the actual games begin, but the early returns suggest he’s well on his way to climbing the coaching ladder quickly.

“He knows so much from playing in the NFL,” Knowles said this spring. “He's really picked things up extremely quick. He's a professional.”

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