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Middle Managers

Sept. 15, 2008
Sept. 15, 2008

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Sept. 15, 2008

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Middle Managers

Who wins the showdown between Ohio State and USC could hinge on which of the nation's top linebackers—James Laurinaitis or Rey Maualuga—takes control

FIRST CAME thecarnage, followed by the texting between friends. ¶ Good win, Ohio State'sJames Laurinaitis thumbed to his West Coast buddy after USC's dismemberment ofVirginia on Aug. 30. Way to go, man. Keep it up. ¶ Nice shutout, replied theTrojans' Rey Maualuga, referring to the Buckeyes' 43--0 clubbing of YoungstownState that same day. Keep doing what you do best. ¶ An innocuous exchange?Without question, Maualuga acknowledged last week as he was chauffeured in agolf cart back to Heritage Hall from an on-campus photo shoot. "But I maystir the pot a little next week." ¶ No need, Rey. The pot will be on fullboil by this Saturday, when the L.A. Coliseum hosts the most momentousnonconference game of the season. Top-ranked Southern Cal versus No. 5 OhioState will be more than a riveting matchup of deep, talented and superbly(though differently) coached teams. It will provide a denouement to the dramathat has consumed the republic since Chris Wells limped off in the thirdquarter against the Penguins: What's the deal with Beanie's right foot?

This is an article from the Sept. 15, 2008 issue

The game alsostands to generate, on one sideline or the other, a torrent of second-guessing.Why didn't I just take the money? Each team is rich in seniors who put the NFLon hold for one more year of seasoning and another shot at a nationalchampionship ring.

Two of thosereturnees happen to be the finest middle linebackers in the country.Laurinaitis and Maualuga became friends last spring at the gathering of thePlayboy preseason All-America team in Phoenix. They have plenty in commonbeyond their shared position, their mutual regard and all those vowels in theirsurnames. Both were projected as first-round picks before last April's NFLdraft, and they have two of the more exotic pedigrees in college football.Laurinaitis is the son of Joe Laurinaitis, better known to devotees of prowrestling as the Animal, one half of that groundbreaking tag team, the RoadWarriors. Maualuga is the great-great-grandson of a Samoan chieftain.

In other ways thetwo are as different as, well, "Superstar" Billy Graham and Jimmy"Superfly" Snuka. Whereas the 6'3", 240-pound Laurinaitis arrivedin Columbus as a student of the game who fixated on watching tape, Maualugacould not count the reading of defenses as one of his strong suits. But withhis cheetahlike burst and power at the point of attack—"He blows peopleup," says one NFL scout—the 6'2", 260-pound Maualuga is the morenaturally talented of the two. And the more flawed. Prone to misreads and blownassignments early in his career, he gained a reputation as a ball-chasingfreelancer who, in his quest to make the highlight-show hit, could not alwaysbe bothered to fill his gap.

Under thementorship of Ken Norton Jr., the former Pro Bowl linebacker who now coachesthe position at USC, Maualuga "has become a much more disciplinedplayer," says the scout, who requested anonymity. "Ken has taught himto read linemen and stay in his run fits [assigned gaps]."

The scout addsthat Laurinaitis "is not as physically gifted, but a lot of [NFL] teams mayfind him more desirable because of his ability to captain the defense, to makethe right checks, to key and diagnose the play. He may not be as athletic orexplosive [as Maualuga], but he's going to get there just as quickly because hejust sees it and reacts. That's why he's so productive."

The differentskill sets reflect, not surprisingly, the programs that produced them.Considering his quest to facilitate "peak experiences" for his playersand his desire to use them "in ways that best express their ability"and "exhibit their true nature," it's little wonder that Trojans coachPete Carroll made a place for Maualuga. So what if the linebacker has anindependent streak (for kicks, he wore a pink thong over his shorts during ateam workout in July) and had an early tendency to overrun as many ballcarriersas he brought down.

THAT CAREFREEapproach would never fly at Ohio State, where the emphasis has long been onorder, precision and consistency. The players are required to toe a line asstraight as the part in coach Jim Tressel's neatly groomed hair. Defensivecoordinator Jim Heacock emphasizes the reliability and intelligence ofLaurinaitis, and is effusive about his discipline and preparation. In theBuckeyes' 2--0 start, including a 26--14 win over Ohio last Saturday,Laurinaitis had 14 tackles and an interception. "From Day One he knew whathe wanted to do and got himself ready," says Heacock. "So when his timecame to step in, there was no panic."

That is not tosay that there was no shouting. "I was in Helsinki doing a tag-team eventfor the WWE," recalls the Animal. "I was getting ready for bed when thecall came through from my wife." Julie Laurinaitis, home in Hamel, Minn.,watching the 2005 Ohio State--Michigan battle on TV, was screaming into thephone, "James is on the field. He's in the game!"

On theWolverines' first play from scrimmage, strongside linebacker Bobby Carpenterwent down with a broken right fibula, and onto the field trotted an 18-year-oldfreshman. Laurinaitis had played in the first 10 games—none, obviously, of thismagnitude. Doing his best to block out the Big House crowd of 111,591, hesettled down ever so slightly when weakside linebacker A.J. Hawk winked andsmiled at him. "You're going to be fine," middle 'backer AnthonySchlegel assured him. "This is what you've been working for."Laurinaitis's only tackle came on the last play and helped preserve a 25--21victory that secured for the Buckeyes the first of three straight Big Tentitles.

His geeklikepassion for preparation was embodied by the well-worn three-ring binderLaurinaitis schlepped to and from Wayzata High in Plymouth, Minn. "He wouldtake home film of upcoming opponents, then draw up every single play the otherteam ran and keep it in that binder," recalls Brad Anderson, his coach atWayzata.

"I'm a betterlearner when I write stuff down," says Laurinaitis, who became the firstMinnesotan since Sid Gillman (he captained the Buckeyes in 1933) to receive ascholarship to play at Ohio State. Following his baptism by fire in the BigHouse, Laurinaitis started 13 games in '06 and became the first true sophomoreto win the Nagurski Trophy, awarded to the nation's top defensive player.

On the day heflew into Charlotte to accept the award, Laurinaitis recognized aplatinum-blond-coiffed man by the baggage carousel. "Hey, Mr. Flair,"he said. "How are you?"

"Animal'sboy!" boomed Ric (Nature Boy) Flair. "How ya doin'?"

To hearLaurinaitis tell it, not so well. That off-season he reached out to one of hispredecessors, former Buckeyes middle linebacker Chris Spielman, who asked himwhat he needed help with. Everything, came the reply. "That's why he'sgoing to make it in the NFL," says Spielman, who played 10 seasons in theleague and recognized in Laurinaitis the same insatiable hunger forself-improvement that drove him. They watched video together. "I talk tohim like I talk to myself," says Spielman. "When he talks about howsome aspect of his game isn't good enough, I tell him, 'It never will be goodenough, but that's not going to prevent us from trying to make it good enough.'He knew exactly what I meant."

One of Spielman'squibbles: "James is a sure tackler, but he isn't the most devastatingtackler. He could be a little more vicious."

He could stand,in other words, to be a little more like "Big-Play" Rey. But surelythere were a handful of Maualuga-like collisions scattered among the 121tackles Laurinaitis racked up last season, after which he collected the ButkusAward as the nation's top linebacker. That satisfaction was quickly replaced bythe disappointment of a second straight loss in the BCS title game.

Ending his seasonon a happier note was Maualuga, who had three sacks, forced a fumble andintercepted a pass that set up a touchdown in the Trojans' 49--17 win overIllinois in the Rose Bowl. His dominance earned him the game's defensive MVPaward. More important, it marked his arrival as a complete player.

HE DIDN'T knowmuch, but as a freshman Maualuga knew this: He was fast, strong and wanted toundress the ballcarrier on every play. "I just wanted to hear my name overthe Coliseum loudspeakers," he confesses. He played out of control, andthat recklessness carried over into his personal life. At a Halloween party in2005 he punched a guy. He was arrested and booked for misdemeanor battery.After attending 26 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, performing 100 hours ofcommunity service and undergoing anger counseling, the charge was dropped. Thecounseling, in particular, says Maualuga, "was beneficial for me. Mycounselor was a lady, and we just talked about me and things I was goingthrough in my life—things I couldn't really talk about with otherpeople."

Foremost amongthose subjects was the decline of his father, Talatonu, a Pentecostal ministerwho in the fall of '05 was dying of brain cancer. (He succumbed a couple ofmonths later, two days before USC's Rose Bowl loss to Texas.) Some 550 milesfrom his family's home in northern California, Maualuga was overwhelmed attimes by feelings of helplessness, homesickness and grief. "He justsnapped," Garett Montana, Maualuga's defensive coordinator at Eureka High,says of the punching incident. "That wasn't the Rey we knew."

Maualuga beganhis sophomore year in a dogfight for the starting job with senior Oscar Lua.The upperclassman was by far the smarter, more fundamentally sound player. Inthe end, however, Carroll couldn't resist Maualuga's athleticism and passion,the fear he struck in the hearts of opponents. The sophomore got the nod.

Each seasonMaualuga has gained a stronger grasp of the small details that had previouslyheld so little interest for a warrior like himself. "He's been able tocombine all that speed, all that power, with an understanding of the mentalside of the game," says Norton. "He's no longer a young guy learninghow to play the game. Backs, linemen—no one can take him on. He's too much.He's supernatural."

Norton assureseveryone that his pupil's two-tackle performance in the opener against Virginiawas not indicative of those supernatural abilities.

TWO TACKLES?"says Spielman, letting his scarlet-and-gray briefs show. "What's that? Imean, you can get two tackles falling down on every snap. You're anAll-American, you have to be making plays!"

As it happens,Maualuga was playing with a broken finger, suffered in the week before thegame; to reduce the pain he took two Vicodin before kickoff, which is why,Maualuga suspects, he felt dizzy and vomited seven times during the game. Laterhe collapsed at the airport and required intravenous fluids. He was at practicethree days later.

This Saturday'sgame will more likely turn on Wells's foot than Maualuga's stomach. But keepyour eye on the middle of the field. Who will make more plays? Who will win theButkus? Whose name will be called first at the NFL draft next April?

And whose in-boxwill be filling up with congratulatory texts come Saturday night, and whosewith messages of commiseration?

"James is a sure tackler," says Spielman,"but he could be a little MORE VICIOUS." In other words, a little morelike Maualuga.

The Three Factors

The answers to these questions will determine theoutcome of the biggest nonconference game of the year

1. How's Beanie's wheel?
The Buckeyes had a week to draw up an attack that did not include star runningback Beanie Wells, who was hobbled by a jammed big toe and right foot. Theresults last Saturday were not promising: 272 yards of total offense and 5 for15 on third-down conversions in a 26--14 win over Ohio (a 33 1/2-pointunderdog). Wells is almost certain to play against the Trojans. If he's notnear the top of his game, Ohio State will be hard-pressed to keep it close.

2. Whither Terrelle?
Ohio State's dual-threat freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor was expected toplay about 20 snaps against Ohio, in relief of starter Todd Boeckman. With thegame so tight—the Buckeyes trailed 14--12 early in the fourth—Pryor got in foronly eight plays, meaning he'll be less prepared to mix it up against a USCdefensive scheme that has a history of yielding big yards to mobilequarterbacks. Remember Vince Young?

3. Is Sanchez that good?
Before anyone declares quarterback Mark Sanchez an upgrade over John DavidBooty—and he sure looked like it while picking apart Virginia in USC'sopener—let's see how he fares against an Ohio State defense that has ninestarters back from 2007 and intercepted four passes against Ohio. Trojansreceivers will have less space this week, and Sanchez will have less time tofind them.

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BREAKING NEWS, REAL-TIME SCORES AND DAILYANALYSIS.

COUNTDOWN
Get the latest on the big game, with reports on both teams from Austin Murphy,analysis from Stewart Mandel and more in The Sweep blog.

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PHOTOPhotograph by John BieverSO ALIKE, SO DIFFERENT Laurinaitis (33) relies on preparation, while USC's jumpy Maualuga (58) is more of a freewheeler.FOUR PHOTOSDAMIAN STROHMEYER[See caption above]PHOTOAL TIELEMANSPHOTOJOHN BIEVERPHOTOSIMON BRUTYPHOTOJAMIE SABAU/GETTY IMAGES (LAURINAITIS)JARRING Laurinaitis and Maualuga made big hits in their openers.PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER (MAUALUGA)[See caption above]