Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
First things first. James Laurinaitis isn't a podiatrist and doesn't know when his Ohio State teammate Beanie Wells will return to the field. The Buckeyes star linebacker and two-time team captain is more focused on leading a dominant defense featuring several potential All-Americans. Laurinaitis, the reigning Butkus Award winner and former National Defensive Player of the Year, was among the Buckeyes stars who passed up NFL money for a final shot at the national title.
After recording 236 tackles, nine sacks and seven interceptions the last two seasons, Laurinaitis headlines a unit that led the nation in both total defense and scoring defense last fall but once again got gashed in the BCS national championship game. Ohio State started off strong in Week 1, keeping Youngstown State behind the midfield stripe until the game's final play. A much larger test looms Sept. 13 against USC as Ohio State tries to improve its national reputation against an elite opponent.
Laurinaitis, the preseason Big Ten Defensive Player of the year, sounded off on Wells, the defense and dealing with expectations in an interview this week.
First off, I've got to get your take. How is Beanie and do think he'll play this week or next week?
James Laurinaitis: I don't know. I'm not just blowing smoke, but I really don't know what's going on with Chris. He's feeling good. He seems like he's doing well. They do a good job of keeping it under wraps, how he is. I think he'll be a day-by-day thing, but to me, he looks good and he looks like he's getting after it in the rehab room. We don't know his diagnosis, so we don't know really what his plan is or what his timing is, but I know one thing about Chris: If he has the slightest chance to play, he'll play because he's an extremely tough kid.
Have you see him walking around at all in practice? Is he moving OK or struggling?
JL: I walked by him a few times in the locker room and he seems like he's doing OK. He's just trying to get better. Most of the time, he's in the training room and whenever he's not around the practice field or lifting, he's trying to get rehab on it or something. I really haven't seen him all that much.
You're obviously going to be facing some tougher teams later on, but what did you get out of that first game against Youngstown?
JL: With a first game like that, it's harder because you don't know what to expect, so to speak. We knew Youngstown was going to have a new quarterback and things like that and you go into a Game 1 against anyone, teams are going to try something new. They had tendencies, when they're in this formation, they're only going straight downhill. Well, they didn't go straight downhill. They went outside with it. Just reacting and seeing little things that we maybe messed up on scheme-wise and just getting something on film to evaluate, that's the important thing.
What are some of the things you'd like to see improve personally and as a unit?
JL: There's certain things where someone scrambles, they left their guy to go try get the quarterback and then there's an open receiver. Just making sure everyone does their job. When someone tries to go out of their way to make a play, that's where there's openings for a hole to be hit. Just really focusing on scheme stuff, stuff that we can control and trying to improve. Obviously we have to try and improve on turnovers. We had a fumble recovery but we dropped an interception.
When you have a defense with so many award winners, is it ever hard to remain motivated and not rely on what you've accomplished in the past?
JL: To me, it's easier. The guys here realize what's at stake. We have a way more businesslike attitude out there. When someone messes up, the players are checking each other instead of the coaches having to step in and yell at somebody. We're a lot more mature because of it and we know when we step on that field, we're trying to get better. The guys who are the award winners, the guys that are the public guys, they're not the ones taking credit. They're always spreading the credit around. All you have to do is walk down our hallways to see the people who have come before us. That itself is humbling for a lot of the guys.
Fans would love to see you guys play a big-name team every week. How does this schedule prepare you? You obviously have a huge game next week. How do these games prepare you for a matchup like USC ?
JL: If you look across the country last year and even last week, people got upset that you wouldn't expect. That's something where you really have to focus week by week. If you're striving to get better and focusing what you can do better now, when those big games come, those are the games you come to Ohio State for. You expect to play in those games. You can't sleep on anybody, no matter who it is. You're going to get different looks from different teams and seeing how our defense reacts to looks you maybe won't see the rest of the year or maybe you will. It'll just be good to see how our defense improves from last week to this week.
What has it been like being a captain again?
JL: Being one last year was more of a shock, just that knowing coach [Jim] Tressel hadn't had a junior before in his career and didn't really expect it, it was maybe a long shot. But to actually have something stirred up like that and have a junior was a huge surprise, a huge honor. This year, with all the leaders that we have -- Marcus Freeman, Malcolm Jenkins, Donald Washington is a guy who is very vocal and passionate about football -- and to be voted amongst those, the best leaders and the best players in the country, as one of the four guys, it blows my mind.
You've played with Marcus [Freeman] so long. Is it almost like second nature at this point?
JL: Marcus and I have been great friends since I was a freshman here. A big reason we became close friends is he's extremely unselfish. When he got hurt my freshman year, he helped me out and helped me learn the SAM linebacker position, which he was playing at the same time. I was third string, so when Bob [Carpenter] got hurt, he was there to help me out and show me the ropes a little bit. It's been a friendship that's kind of built up. We have a lot in common, obviously, not just playing the position. We work out together and stuff like that and you're right, it is second nature playing next to him now.
You mentioned the businesslike approach being more of a factor this year. Do the expectations this year have anything to do with that?
JL: It's maturity. The guys on this defense, we've been together for a long time. That goes back to my sophomore year when we were preseason No. 1, the expectations of being ranked first in the country and going through a season. We went through last season, where we were predicted to be third in the Big Ten
and everyone's kind of saying, 'Well, this Buckeye team's not going to be very good.' Now it's kind of a mixed expectations. The state of Ohio thinks that we have the highest expectations that we've had since we've been here and maybe outside they're saying, 'Quit talking about Ohio State. They're a joke.' We know you can't pay attention to anything of outside sources. We know that when all we can control is what's going on on the field and watching film and trying to make ourselves better. It just comes with maturity and just going through the ups and downs that we have.