Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Katzenmoyer was a game-changer

The Laurinaitis debate: A very good player, lacking great moments, says Bill Livingston

by Bill Livingston

October 03, 2008

EDITOR'S NOTE: OSU beat writer Doug Lesmerises and columnist Bill Livingston ponder the accomplishments of Buckeyes linebacker James Laurinaitis. Lesmerises' opinion can be found here.

How good would James Laurinaitis be at Ohio State without the back story of the war paint and spikes of his pro wrestler father, Joe?

Would he be Tom Cousineau, a top pick of the entire NFL draft? Would he be A.J. Hawk, taken fifth?

How good would he be at a school without Ohio State's recent dominance of the Big Ten?

Would he be Shawn Crable, a fierce force at Michigan? Would he be J Leman last year at Illinois?

The Nagurski Award winner in 2006 as the best defensive player in college football, as well as the Butkus Award winner in 2007 as the game's best linebacker, Lauriniatis, now a senior, ought to have made plays that reverberate like the Victory Bell. But when you put him in perspective, matched against Ohio State's best at a strong position for the Buckeyes historically, those plays are missing.

Marvin Fong/The Plain DealerAs good as James Laurinaitis has been, and for every big stop he's had --- as in this BCS title game stop of LSU's Jacob Hester --- there seem to be plenty of tackles that come one yard too late or lack the jarring impact that can change games.

• Appreciating Laurinaitis

"I think most great players have a play you remember," said Ohio State radio network analyst Jim Lachey.

Lachey, a 10-year NFL veteran from OSU, remembers Lawrence Taylor breaking Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann's leg on a Monday night game. It sticks in his head, like a dark room he doesn't like to peek inside.

"Laurinaitis was in on 19 tackles against Wisconsin last year," said Lachey, "so he makes a lot of plays. He has 10 career sacks, so the plays might not be for big losses."

The game plan at Ohio State is for the front four to occupy blockers and let the middle linebacker make the tackle. But Laurinaitis is often the second guy in on the tackle. Pursuit is as big a part of football as it is in cops and robbers. But all-world guys should make the first hit.

At Ohio State, Cousineau had 569 tackles, 16 solos in one game, and averaged 17.6 tackles per game in 1978. Marcus Marek had 572 tackles, the OSU record. Chris Spielman had 283 solos, the OSU record. Steve Tovar had 408 tackles. Hawk had 394 tackles, 41 for losses, seven interceptions and a fourth-and-2 red zone sack of Brady Quinn when the Fiesta Bowl was still a game. Andy Katzenmoyer had 18 sacks, six interceptions, and a hit in the open field on Missouri quarterback Corby Jones that sent his helmet, pads, and address of next of kin flying.

Mostly a special teams player as a freshman, Laurinatis has 339 total tackles, 143 solo stops, 18.5 tackles for loss, the 10 sacks, and eight interceptions.

"Laurinaitis' strengths are sound fundamentals, good balance and working hard to be in the right place at the right time," said Browns General Manager Phil Savage. "Is he going to make the explosive, game-changing hit like Katzenmoyer? Is he going to get the big pass rush off the corner? Not as much as some others, but there is much to be said for being in the proper position to make the play. Guys can be going around trying to make that hit to blow someone up and be completely out of position. They're not as steady. I think Laurinatis will go fairly high."

A pass rush late in the game is gold in football. Bobby Carpenter was also a more impactful linebacker at OSU, because he was a pass-rushing fiend when lined up as a defensive end. Crable played the same hybrid position at Michigan.

"We tried to make plays in the hole," said Earle Bruce, the former Ohio State coach who had Spielman, Marek and Pepper Johnson on his teams. "I didn't like hitting them downfield. I think linebackers have to play too much pass defense now."

When Bruce talks of Pepper Johnson getting to the point of attack "like you wouldn't believe," or of Spielman stuffing Minnesota quarterback Ricky Foggie on fourth-and-1 "when the little guy [Lou Holtz] was the coach up there," the absence of such plays by Laurinaitis is hard to overlook.

In the matchup of Southern California middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and Laurinatis this season, Maualuga's touchdown interception return, on which OSU wide receiver Brian Hartline could not catch him, was a big-time athletic play, like the ones you see on Sundays.

Laurinaitis' biggest plays so far are a forced fumble and an interception at Texas in 2006. They were big, for the victory helped send Ohio State to the BCS title game. But you were left wanting more.

He is good. Not great.

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