By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

As he prepared himself for his first NFL minicamp, second-round draft choice James Laurinaitis heard all of the questions about getting thrown into the fire immediately.

Rare is the second-round choice who has more pressure on him from the start than the player picked in the first round. But in this situation, one could make the case that the expectations for what Laurinaitis can do for the defense are at least on par with the level of impact expected of first-round tackle Jason Smith with the offense.

“This is the NFL,” Laurinaitis said. “There’s not time to kind of wait for the rookies to catch on. You better catch on or you’ll be left behind. I think pace-wise, you better just try to learn and keep up. I think the most important thing I’m going to try to do is just compete and run around and show that I have a great work ethic and that I’m going to try 100 percent no matter what and the mental stuff will come. That’s the way it is for everyone.”

Laurinaitis is no stranger to the pressure of performing right away. At Ohio State, he got his first real playing time opportunity as a freshman when future first-round pick Bobby Carpenter suffered a broken leg on the first play from scrimmage against rival Michigan.

Thrown right into the mix against the Buckeyes’ most hated opponent, Laurinaitis embraced the opportunity and never looked back during one of the most distinguished careers a linebacker has ever had at the collegiate level.

From that day on, Laurinaitis did nothing but produce for Ohio State. While he wasn’t the most athletic player at his position, few linebackers have the read and react skills of Laurinaitis.

Those instincts to read keys and waste no motion getting to the ball helped Laurinaitis become a three-time All American and one of the most accomplished players in school history.

In three seasons as a starter, Laurinaitis posted 366 tackles, nine interceptions, 24.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks.

In 2006, Laurinaitis won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the nation’s best defensive player. In 2007, he won the Dick Butkus award as the nation’s best linebacker.

“The production – the guy has been like this his entire career at Ohio State,” Rams general manager Billy Devaney said. “He’s been a tackling machine.”

Not too shabby for a kid from Minnesota, who was once touted as a potential second or third round pick in the NHL Draft. Still, some questioned whether Laurinaitis made the right decision in returning to Ohio State for his senior season after he had accomplished so much for the Buckeyes.

Entering this year’s draft, Laurinaitis was considered one of the two best middle linebackers available. Southern California middle linebacker Rey Maualuga was the other highly regarded middle ‘backer.

Much to their surprise, Laurinaitis and Maualuga were both available when the Rams came on the clock in the second round, pick No. 35 overall.

After considering a move up into the first round to land him, the team couldn’t believe its good fortune that the player it coveted all along, Laurinaitis was still on the board.

“That was one of the thoughts,” Devaney said. “We talked about that. We were hoping that he was going to be the guy. If we lost James, we wouldn’t have been happy.”

The Rams did not lose Laurinaitis and moved quickly to select him when the opportunity presented itself.

When Laurinaitis arrived in St. Louis on Thursday afternoon for this weekend’s minicamp, reality finally began to set in that he was in the NFL. He walked into the locker room and saw his jersey hanging there with No. 55 stitched on to the back.

Laurinaitis wore No. 33 at Ohio State but says if he can’t keep that number, the double nickel is exactly what he would have wanted in the NFL.

“My dad wore it when he played in high school and I always thought if I wasn’t going to be 33 and I knew I had to be in the 50s as a linebacker in the NFL,” Laurinaitis said. “I told myself I would try to be 55 like my dad wore in high school.”

After a brief conversation with coach Steve Spagnuolo, Laurinaitis was informed he’d be working at middle linebacker; his position of choice and a spot the Rams have been searching to fill long term since the departure of London Fletcher in 2002.

“I’m excited to go out there and compete,” Laurinaitis said. “I know I have a ways to go and every rookie comes in here at the bottom of the depth chart but I want to get the mental part down and line up and show guys that I can handle everything mentally and obviously the physical stuff should be there.”

So far, much of what Laurinaitis expected has come to fruition. He’s spent most of this weekend simply getting his feet wet, lining up as the third-team middle linebacker behind Chris Draft and David Vobora. Laurinaitis is staying involved though, trying to take the mental repetitions even when he's not on the field so that he is up to speed when he gets the chance to step in.

While Laurinaitis is well aware that fans will always compare and contrast his career to what Maualuga does in Cincinnati, he is unconcerned with anything that isn’t going to go toward helping make the Rams better.

In fact, Laurinaitis considers Maualuga a friend and says the pair exchanged congratulatory phone calls on the night of the draft. But that doesn’t mean Laurinaitis will be watching Maualuga’s statistics every week.

“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 said. “You can look at it from different angles but you have to focus on just what you yourself is going to be able to contribute to this team rather than what other guys are doing for their franchises.

“There’s always going to be comparisons and I think everything will kind of get played out in the long run.”