COLUMBUS, Ohio - Before he leaves Ohio State - after one more game or one more season - James Laurinaitis will undoubtedly rank among the school's top linebackers ever.
This astounds Laurinaitis, the son of a WWE icon who still thinks of himself as a work in progress despite winning the Butkus Award earlier this month and the Nagurski Award a year ago.
'It's unbelievable. It's unbelievable to be mentioned in the same category as A.J. (Hawk) or Chris Spielman,' he said during the Buckeyes' preparations for their BCS title game showdown with LSU on Jan. 7 in New Orleans. 'To be honest, I don't even feel like it's necessary yet. I'm so humbled to even be up for these awards and to think of the past players that have been up for the awards. It's so humbling and such a blessing. I still don't feel like I'm on the same level as those same players.'
For instance, LSU coach Les Miles has no trouble putting Laurinaitis among the best players in his position, at Ohio State or any other school.
'I watched Laurinaitis' highlights and no guy should be allowed to have that many highlights,' he said. 'He is one of the finest players in college football.'
Ohio State has churned out several quality linebackers, including Randy Gradishar, Tom Cousineau, Bob Brudzinski, Stan White, Marcus Marek, Thomas 'Pepper' Johnson, Spielman and Hawk, who now plays for the Green Bay Packers.
Coach Jim Tressel was an assistant coach at Ohio State when Johnson and Spielman, who both went on to glittering NFL careers, were Buckeyes. During his seven years as head coach, Hawk, Anthony Schlegel, Bobby Carpenter, Robert Reynolds, Cie Grant and Matt Wilhelm have played for him. But he distances himself from drawing any conclusions about where Laurinaitis ranks with those players.
'In the midst of someone's career, I hesitate to compare them,' he said. 'I think James really enjoys the fact that there is that tradition of people that weren't just great linebackers, but they were great people and they've gone on and done excellent things after (their playing careers).'
Laurinaitis, a two-time first-team All-American, is the face of the current Buckeyes. Quiet and unassuming, humble to a fault, he prefers his actions to do the talking. He leads the Buckeyes with 103 tackles and is among the leaders with 5 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
Although he's not screaming at teammates, he sets the tone for the defensive unit.
'With James, the things you're going to get out of him are energy and effort,' said defensive end Vernon Gholston, also an All-American. 'He will run to the ball and come up with big plays. It's been great for us to have that aspect for our defense.'
Based on his background, not many would expect Laurinaitis to be so humble.
His father, Joe Laurinaitis, was 'Animal' from the WWE's Legion of Doom and Road Warriors. He and his tag-team partner wore Mad Max-inspired spikes, face paint, tights and body armor that several Ohio State fans wear as an homage to the player they call 'Animal Jr.'
Laurinaitis grew up in Minnesota and disdained a scholarship offer from his home state Big Ten school to come to Ohio State. His parents make it to most of his games. When it comes to expecting a lot out of him, James says his mom, a body builder, is harder on him than his dad is.
'My mom will be more of the, 'Oh, good job, but you could have had way more tackles ...' Laurinaitis said with a laugh. 'They're both perfectionists in their own right, the way they used to train and diet and stuff like that. They passed that on to me.'
Laurinaitis has filed the paperwork to the NFL to get an evaluation of his draft status. He says he has no plans to leave Ohio State early, but all the mock drafts have him going in the top few picks as the No. 1 linebacker available.
He speaks regularly to Hawk, who faced a similar decision after his junior year.
'I don't think information can hurt,' he said. 'A.J. Hawk, it came back that he was a first-round talent, but he came back (for his senior season). It just lets you know where you stand.'
The immediate objective is the national championship game. Laurinaitis will likely be the center of attention when Ohio State's defense is on the field.
Funny, he enjoys that; it's being a focal point off the field that still floors him.
'I'm not going to lie to you, it still surprises me and it's still overwhelming to me,' he said of all the attention he has received. 'It's crazy. But as an athlete, it's kind of a dream come true on one hand and on the other you don't believe it's you. You work hard to be able to talk in front of the media like you see all your favorite players as a kid do. Just to represent this team and this university is an honor.'