Laurinaitis seeks to become leader for St. Louis Rams

When the time came for the Rams to make their second-round pick in the draft, they were in an enviable position.

Granted, all the top-rated wide receivers were gone. But both of the top middle linebackers in the draft — Ohio State's James Laurinaitis and Southern California's Rey Maualuga — were on the board. The Rams decided to take Laurinaitis, sparking a debate and discussion among Rams fans that still is going on, and might continue for some time: Did the Rams take the right guy?

Coming off a season in which the Rams yielded a franchise record for rushing yards allowed, wasn't Maualuga the best run stuffer of the two? Wasn't Maualuga bigger and more of a collision player?

After the Senior Bowl, the Rams seemed to be smitten with Maualuga. But something changed over the next two months. There were rumors of off-field issues concerning Maualuga and with a struggling franchise trying to lay a foundation for the future, Rams management decided to make the safer and more conservative pick by selecting Laurinaitis at No. 35 overall.

Cincinnati snatched up Maualuga three picks later.

These are the types of decisions that can shape franchises and put their stamp on coaching and general manager tenures. For those reasons and more, no Rams draft pick, not even No. 2 overall pick Jason Smith at offensive tackle, will be under as much scrutiny during his rookie season as Laurinaitis.

No one is more aware of this than Laurinaitis, who makes no apologies for being picked ahead of Maualuga.

"I think we're two different style of players," Laurinaitis said. " And I'm not ever going to say anything negative about Rey. I think he's a great player. I do. I think he's done great things at USC. And I think he'll be a successful pro player."

As the 2009 season unfolds, Laurinaitis realizes Rams fans will be doing a compare-and-contrast of his play with Maualuga's. Fans and even media members might be comparing stats of the two players, but Laurinaitis won't.

"Oh no. Not at all," he said. "I think if you focus on what other people are doing, it takes your focus off what you need to be doing for your team."

Laurinaitis says he and Maualuga have become pretty good friends since spending time together at Playboy's preseason all-American team function. Last season, they'd call each other from time to time, congratulating each other on this game or that. On the first day of the draft, Maualuga even called Laurinaitis to congratulate him on being drafted.

"We're fans of each other," Laurinaitis said. "There's a little competition there when you're two middle linebackers. You're happy to be the first one off the board, but it's going to be exciting to see what we can do in the NFL. ... There's always going to be comparisons."

Laurinaitis' college résumé speaks for itmself. One of the more highly decorated players in Buckeyes football history, he was a three-time first-team All-American. As a sophomore in 2006 he won the Nagurski Award, which goes to college football's top defensive player. In 2007, he won the Butkus Award as the nation's top college linebacker. He averaged 122 tackles over his three seasons as a starter, recording nine interceptions, 13 sacks and 24 tackles for loss in that span. But Laurinaitis is proudest of the fact that he was named an Ohio State team captain in 2007 and 2008. Only six other Buckeyes have been a two-time team captain.

"That's something that I will always value over any trophy, because that stuff comes as a product of the team," he said.

As for his play, he says just put on the video.

"The last three years have been proof in the film room, just the stuff that I've been able to do," he said. "I know it's a jump from the Big Ten to the NFL. But I think when you play at Ohio State, you get to play against the best competition. And against the best competition I've been successful.

"I'm excited about the new challenge. With me, you're getting a guy who's going to make every right decision on and off the field; who's going to be disciplined; who's going to be accountable. And who's going to make plays and be a leader for this team."

For now, he's starting at the bottom in the NFL. He opened his first Rams minicamp Friday with the third-team defense at middle linebacker. But that will change, and although Chris Draft may have something to say in the matter, Laurinaitis is expected to be the starting middle linebacker on opening day.

Wearing jersey No. 55 — his father's number in high school — Laurinaitis hit the ground running at Rams Park. If he was going to make a mistake, he was going to make it fast.

"This is the NFL," he said. "There's no time to kind of wait for the rookie to catch on. You better catch on, otherwise you'll be left behind."

Laurinaitis even got some one-on-one tutoring from Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo, who liked what he saw.

"There was a play (Saturday) where he really didn't do everything right," Spagnuolo said. "And yet he made a play on the ball. So to me that says something. If we can get him right, he's going to make a lot more plays."