Buckeyes' linebackers a tag-team effort

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- They certainly didn't plan it that way, but the tag-team interception by James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman last Saturday encapsulated what has been a profitable long-term partnership at Ohio State.

The Buckeyes led Ohio 19-14 in the fourth quarter when Freeman, the team's somewhat unsung strongside linebacker, read quarterback Boo Jackson's eyes and tipped a pass with both mitts. Laurinaitis, the award-winning All-American, adjusted to the ball and dove for his eighth career interception.

As usual, most of the credit for the takeaway went to Laurinaitis, whose superb skills, speed, toughness, tattoos and compelling back story -- if you've been in Azerbaijan for the last 20 years, his dad was "The Animal" of pro wrestling fame -- make him Ohio State's obvious front man. Following Chris Spielman, Andy Katzenmoyer, A.J. Hawk and others in a line of dominant Buckeyes 'backers, Laurinaitis already owns a Butkus Award, a Nagurski Trophy and a Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award.

But Laurinaitis attributes much of his success to Freeman, who lent a hand during a difficult time in 2005. Freeman was next in line for Ohio State's linebacker rotation after playing as a true freshman the previous season, but he tore his meniscus in the season opener and had to redshirt. When starter Bobby Carpenter broke his fibula against Michigan, Laurinaitis, a true freshman, stepped into a spot seemingly reserved for Freeman.

"He could have sat there and said, 'Man, that could have been me out there,'" said Laurinaitis, who appropriately wore a gray "I Am Grateful" wristband as he answered questions. "He didn't do that at all. He took the approach of, 'I'm going to coach this young guy up and make sure he does the best possible he can do.' I really respected that and I really appreciated it. That's what really made us closer."

The two linebackers don't reminisce much about 2005. They have other things on their minds, namely how to stop No. 1 USC on Saturday night at the L.A. Coliseum (ABC, 8 p.m. ET).

The mega matchup marks the 29th time Laurinaitis and Freeman will line up alongside one another. Neither player would have things any other way.

"Me and James will be friends for the rest of our lives, no matter what happens here at Ohio State or in the NFL," Freeman said. "I'm always proud of him and he's proud of me."

The two players are separated by a year in school, but not much else.

"We're always coming in at the same time, we're doing workouts two times a day at the same time, eating lunch," Laurinaitis said. "It's like you can't go anywhere without one another."

Laurinaitis has built his reputation on tremendous lateral speed, endurance and the ability to play a role on almost every play. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound senior has averaged 8.9 tackles in his last 28 games, stretching back to the start of 2006.

He's most effective in pass coverage, recording five interceptions in his sophomore season.

"He's in the right spot all the time," USC quarterback Mark Sanchez said. "He's the heartbeat of their defense."

Throughout the week Laurinaitis has been compared with his USC counterpart Rey Maualuga, But unlike Maualuga, arguably the nation's top linebacker coming out of high school, and fellow Trojans star Brian Cushing, Laurinaitis came to Ohio State with limited fanfare.

"James came a long way from them throwing him into the Michigan game [in 2005] and nobody knowing really who he was to blowing up," said Buckeyes cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, another overlooked prep prospect. "Now he's a household name."

The growing fame hasn't sidetracked his focus. On a team with multiple senior standouts, Laurinaitis was voted a captain for the second straight year, becoming just the seventh Ohio State player to serve two terms.

Laurinaitis' demeanor impressed Maualuga when the two met up at the Playboy All-America photo shoot this summer.

"You'd think a guy with that stature, who's gotten all the accolades and awards he's got, he'd be a different type of person," Maualuga said. "But he's down-to-earth, unselfish. A complete, great person."

Laurinaitis is lauded for his ability to contribute in multiple areas, but he might be Ohio State's second most adaptable linebacker. Freeman has played both outside linebacker spots, collecting 196 career tackles and 13 pass breakups.

USC coach Pete Carroll noted that Ohio State accentuates the athleticism of its linebackers in the defensive scheme, allowing players to cut loose on the field.

"When you have a guy as versatile as Marcus is," Laurinaitis said, "with the ability to say, 'Hey, when you're in this, go to [strongside linebacker], go to the outside, and then when we go to this package, come back into the middle and play on the weak side,' that benefits not only himself, but the whole defense."

Whoever stepped in as Ohio State's third starting linebacker this season was going to be overshadowed by Laurinaitis and Freeman, but sophomore Ross Homan is holding his own so far. The 6-foot, 229-pound Homan leads the Buckeyes in solo tackles (6) after redshirting last season with turf toe.

"You know he's going to be where he needs to be," Laurinaitis said. "His work ethic is unbelievable and his steady ability is unbelievable. I have all the confidence in the world in the guys all around me."