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Published: Tuesday, 4/8/2008

Bucks prefer wealth of experience

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

COLUMBUS Today, James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman could be off someplace exotic filming a Nike commercial. Or they could be out shopping for the most ostentatious SUV on the market multiple video screens, phat sound system, and ridiculous spinners that would make even Three 6 Mafia proud.

Instead, the duo will finish practice, shuffle out of the Woody Hayes Center at Ohio State University, and prepare for that next biology lab, or that test in psychology. The wealth and the spoils of life in professional football are just not at the top of the agenda right now.

Following outstanding junior seasons in which Laurinaitis was a consensus All-American for a second time and led the nation s top-ranked defense with 121 tackles, and Freeman added 109 stops, both had the opportunity to move on to the pros, and the riches that would accompany such a move.

But they are still at Ohio State, still running sprints at 6 in the morning, and still Buckeyes for a final season.

Freeman said the sting of losing the last two national championship games was not what motivated him to return.

A lot of people think it s just to get the national championship, just because we lost, but the chances of getting back to the national championship are slim, very slim, he said. You make lifelong friends here, and being in the college football atmosphere is something you never want to leave. You talk to a lot of people who have gone to the draft early, and they say I wish I would have stayed

Laurinaitis, the 2007 Butkus Award winner as the nation s top linebacker, was likely a top five pick in the draft and would have secured a contract in the tens of millions.

But he said finishing his commitment at Ohio State was more important, and he has had no second thoughts about waiting another year to turn pro.

Everyone said I made the right decision, Laurinaitis said. It s the best time of your life to be with friends, and the education here is great. And I can help the younger players out. No regrets.

There are numerous less experienced Buckeyes, who, with the return of Laurinaitis and Freeman, will benefit from their presence, and give Ohio State exceptional depth at the position. Special teams demon Brian Rolle, along with Ross Homan, Tyler Moeller, Thaddeus Gibson and Jermale Hines form a quintet of talented sophomores, while junior Austin Spitler and senior Curtis Terry also figure in the picture.

You like to think that you have a lot of players able to get out there, Ohio State linebackers coach Luke Fickell said about his cache of capable players. There are a lot of guys, but you hope you can get them all out on the field and involved.

Freeman is a product of Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio, who was a second -team All-Big Ten pick last season, and also was chosen for the Academic All-Big Ten team. Freeman said the chance to spend another season with Laurinaitis was a factor in his decision to return.

James is a guy who, no matter how good he gets, he keeps working to get better everyday, Freeman said. He is always the guy running past other guys in a drill and working that much harder. I am lucky to play with him and learn from him. Any time you are behind a guy like James, you have to take it as an opportunity to learn.

Laurinaitis, the 2007 Big Ten defensive player of the year who came to Ohio State from Wayzata High School in Hamel, Minn., said the bond he has formed with Freeman is anchored in mutual respect.

He s a tremendous athlete and he s constantly making me work hard, Laurinaitis said. I m forever grateful to have the opportunity to play with him. There s trust amongst each other, which helps the team play better.

Fickell said he was not surprised to see his senior duo put the NFL on hold and opt to savor the experiences that come only in the senior season of college football.

That means more to a lot of these guys than money in their pocket, Fickell said.

Fickell said he thinks the unselfish approach taken by Laurinaitis has its genesis in the team philosophy Ohio State coach Jim Tressel promotes.

The thing about James is it really is not all about him, Fickell said. The most important thing coach Tressel preaches to the team is that it is not all about one player. That is the thing about a lot of the great players who have come through here, it is about their team, and people remember the last thing you did when you were here.

Contact Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6510.



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