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Laurinaitis Born to Lead

Posted Sep 22, 2010

When you come with an athletic pedigree like the one owned by Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, there are certain inherent expectations that go with it.

The son of a professional wrestling father and a gifted track star mother, Laurinaitis' athletic genes were blessed from day one.

Aside from the obvious requirement that you excel at nearly every athletic endeavor you try be it hockey, football, whatever, you are nearly always expected to not only do well but stand out above the rest and set an example for the rest of your teammates.

Going back to his youth sports day to his time at Wayzata (Minn.) High to Ohio State University, Laurinaitis has always fit that bill. And from the day he arrived in St. Louis as the team’s second-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, Laurinaitis has been looked to as a building block for the franchise.

“He accepts that role really well,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “When he was here in his first (practices), it was like, 'Wow, he really gets it; let's see what happens in training camp.' And he didn't skip a beat.”

The very nature of the middle linebacker position comes with enough responsibility that leadership isn’t a bonus but a requirement for the person playing the position. It’s the defensive equivalent of playing quarterback because it’s the middle linebacker’s job to make all the calls and ensure that he knows everyone else’s job on every play.

Now only in his second year, things that would seem to take years to learn have quickly become second nature to Laurinaitis. That development has made it easy to see why when you ask any of his teammates to describe him the general consensus comes down to three words: Natural. Born. Leader.

GETTING ADJUSTED

By all accounts, Laurinaitis’ rookie season was one of the finest ever posted by a Ram. After arriving at camp on time because he graduated from Ohio State early, Laurinaitis came in with the mindset to earn the starting job.

After only a few days of last year’s training camp, he was quickly promoted to the top unit as the middle linebacker. It was a quicker promotion than even Spagnuolo – who prefers to make rookies earn their jobs over time – had anticipated.

But the fit of Laurinaitis in that position was evident right away. He was clearly physical enough and blessed with the instincts to naturally make plays sideline to sideline.

Make no mistake, though, Laurinaitis had plenty dished on his plate right away. He had to learn to make all of the defensive calls as well as the proper checks to make changes at the line of scrimmage before the play.

None of that even takes into account adjusting to the speed of the NFL as well as the task of learning and fitting into an NFL locker room.

In a position with so much accountability needed, Laurinaitis was careful not to overstep his bounds.

“As a rookie, it's hard,” Laurinaitis said. “You don't want to step on toes of guys who are 10 years older.”

So Laurinaitis did what he does best: produce. Every week, Laurinaitis made strides and though he claims he found himself “crazy out of position” on too many occasions, he was in the right position often enough to become only the second rookie in franchise history to lead the team in tackles with 146 tackles, adding a pair of sacks along the way.

In fact, Laurinaitis’ tackle total was best among rookie linebackers. It was that performance that set the table for Laurinaitis’ willingness and ability to embrace an even larger leadership role in this, his second season.

“I think it’s easier in year two to be more vocal and be a leader. Coach Tressel told me one time at Ohio State that your production on the field, what you do on the field is ultimately going to make guys listen to you,” Laurinaitis said. “If you go out on the field and you are not playing well and you’re not a good player and demanding a lot of your teammates they are not going to respect you or listen to you but if you are a guy that produces, you are consistent, you are on time and do all the little things right, then you are someone that whether they admit it or not, you are doing things the right way when you produce and do that stuff then people will listen to you.

“I think I was consistent enough last year that some of the guys know I take football very seriously, I take this team very seriously, I take a lot of pride in the St. Louis Rams organization and I want to be a huge part of the reason why it gets turned around. I think in year two you have to kind of keep on that, keep producing and hopefully more guys will listen and follow.”

TAKING THE REINS

In his second season with the Rams last year, linebacker Larry Grant found himself working almost exclusively on special teams and hoping for a chance to emerge as a starter.

When Laurinaitis, his former Buckeyes teammate, arrived in St. Louis, Grant’s comfort level with the organization grew. As the two friends got re-acquainted and  spent the whole year as roommates, things started to click for Grant.

Even though Grant had been in the league longer than Laurinaitis, the opportunity to play next to him and pick his brain again, helped Grant go from special teamer to starter in 2010.
“Rooming with James a lot during the season and in training camp this year, I got to see the game from his point of view,” Grant said. “It kind of brought both of our heads together and it changes things a lot for me. I spent the whole offseason with him. It helped me go to the next level.”

While the previous relationship between the two might have made that act of leadership natural for Laurinaitis, there were plenty of other examples of his embracing a further expanded role in setting the tone for his team.

Soon after the Rams drafted rookie quarterback Sam Bradford with the top selection in April, Laurinaitis reached out to his fellow franchise cornerstone (and fourth-round choice Mardy Gilyard) with an important message that he felt needed to be conveyed right away.

“I think it’s just a mindset, an attitude,” Laurinaitis said. “Last year wasn’t fun at all. If you are a competitor it doesn’t matter what team you were on. If you like to compete, it’s not fun to go 1-15. I just wanted to text them and let them know to get ready to get to work. We are building something here, it’s already turning around and we are already improved from last year. Don’t think about it as you are coming into a 1-15 Rams organization. Look at it as a chance to be a part of something special coming forward and have pride in where you got picked. It’s a cool thing to play for the St. Louis Rams and I wanted them to know that.”

SECOND YEAR LEAP

Laurinaitis’ growth in all aspects of his game from on the field production to off the field leadership have been readily apparent to his teammates and coaches since the team reconvened in St. Louis back in March for the offseason program.

A self-admitted football junkie, Laurinaitis couldn’t stay away from the building long and even when he went back to Minnesota to train with Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald, he took his laptop – he bought the same one the Rams coaches use with the same software – with him so he could watch film of division opponents San Francisco, Seattle and Arizona.

Being in the second year of coordinator Ken Flajole’s defense has also helped Laurinaitis do more reacting and less thinking.

“I think looking back to last year at this point, it’s like night and day for me,” Laurinaitis said. “Just being able to be confident in what we are doing and know the play calls. When you are able to do that, you are able to focus in more on what is the offense trying to do to us, why are we making this call, and you can get deeper into the defense when you know the basics so you can kind of relax. When you know the adjustments and checks like the back of your hand you can react faster.”

Always a bit of a perfectionist, Laurinaitis will always maintain that he needs to work on “everything” when asked where he’d most like to improve his game.

For him, that’s a neverending quest that he doesn’t see coming to a halt anytime soon.

If Laurinaitis can continue to make the strides he’s made from year one to year two, there’s not a player or coach in the Rams organization that will put a ceiling on what he could accomplish in any of his roles.

“I was impressed with him the first year, but he's really taken hold of it,” Flajole said. “Some guys, you put that on them but they don't really like that responsibility; they do it out of obligation. He really relishes it.”

 

 

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