Analysis: Losing James Laurinaitis stings for Notre Dame LBs who view him 'like a brother'

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — James Laurinaitis, the most overqualified graduate assistant in the country, certainly made an outsized impact on Notre Dame’s linebackers over the past year.

Now he and his young family are headed home to Columbus, Ohio, not to resume a promising media career that Laurinaitis put on hold to scratch the coaching itch and help Marcus Freeman, his old Ohio State teammate, get his program up and running.

Instead, this lateral move returns a three-time All-American to his rightful place on the Buckeyes coaching staff. This is a homecoming as well for wife Shelly Laurinaitis, an Ohio State graduate and the mother of their three young daughters.

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“I am thrilled for our program and especially for our current and future Buckeyes who will benefit so much from having James on staff,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said Saturday in a statement announcing the hire. “James is a terrific young man with wisdom as a Buckeye and experience as an eight-year NFL veteran. He is going to be a very important part of our program going forward.”

Suddenly, Sept. 23 at Notre Dame Stadium takes on an additional layer of intrigue.

Just as Irish defensive line coach Al Washington’s familiarity with Ohio State’s personnel and coaching tendencies was one of the subplots that shaped the 2022 season opener — a tightly contested clash that saw the favored Buckeyes rally late for a 21-10 win in front of LeBron, Bronny and Joe Shiesty (aka Joe Burrow) — Laurinaitis’ football brain can’t be discounted as a factor in the opposite direction.

Sep 3, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA;  Ohio State former linebacker James Laurinaitis, now a coach with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, watches as his team warms up prior to the NCAA football game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-USA TODAY Sports

'It just started clicking'

If Laurinaitis thought that experience was “weird” and “emotional” with the Scarlet and Gray across the way, imagine how conflicted he’ll be when the rematch takes place in eight months.  

“James does an unbelievable job with the group, both from a tactical standpoint but also from an experiential standpoint in really helping those guys,” Al Golden, Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, said before the Gator Bowl when asked about Laurinaitis’ impact.

Freeman, whose tight relationship with his longtime friend convinced Laurinaitis to give coaching a try, also expressed appreciation for the former Nagurski, Butkus and Lott IMPACT award winner. Five-star freshman linebacker Jaylen Sneed, in particular, made late-season strides with the help of his famous tutor.

“Jaylen Sneed is a tremendous athlete, great football player,” Freeman said. “He’s just had to continue to improve understanding the difference between the high school game and the college game and he has. He’s done a great job, and Laurinaitis has done a great job working with him to help him on that learning curve.”

Notre Dame's Jaylen Sneed prior to Notre Dame Fall Practice on Friday, August 05, 2022, at Irish Athletics Center in South Bend, Indiana.

Sneed’s first college snaps came against the Navy triple option on Nov. 12 in Baltimore. Daunting as that was, Sneed made it through with the help of the coach he calls “JL.”

“The week before Navy, it all clicked for me,” Sneed said in December. “Me and JL were working together every day, and it just started clicking. And then I played in that Navy game, and I never looked back from there.”

At 36, Laurinaitis isn’t that far removed from his final NFL season with the New Orleans Saints (2016). Many of the opposing players he terrorized in the league are still active, and that resonates with budding young talent just getting started.

“I mean, (eight)-year NFL vet, there's a lot you can say about that, but it’s him just being there,” Sneed said. “He’s like a brother to us really. Not really hard on us. He just wants us to learn as much as we can and he’s just teaching and always willing to help with anything — extra hours, extra film, anything.”

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From Sneed’s perspective, Laurinaitis helped him the most on the mental side of the game.

“When I wasn't playing, he always talked me through it and told me how good that I could be if I keep working and keep my head down,” Sneed said. “And then, technical stuff, me and him just working on the field together has made me so much better.”

'Never assume'

The knock on so many great former players, in any sport, is that they often struggle to make the transition to coaching because they lack the patience or the empathy to bring relative neophytes up to their advanced level of understanding.

Laurinaitis, in his lone session with the local media during his Notre Dame stint, made it clear last August why that wouldn’t be a problem for him.

“You’re learning: ‘How do I want to teach? I know it. How do I want to present it?’ “ he said. “You forget when you’re in the NFL and you’re at a certain high level of (knowledge). You can never assume that some of these young players from high school know. You can’t assume anything, so how do you want to progress in the teaching?”

(NCL_OSUFOOTBALL10_LAURON 9AUG07) Ohio State football players James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman, 1, , right, pose for Laurinaitis' father, Joe, for the 2007-08 team photo during picture day at the Ohio Stadium, August 9, 2007. (Dispatch photo by Neal C. Lauron)

Laurinaitis quickly proved he was a natural with a whistle around his neck or a video clicker in his hand, same as he did when he was holding a microphone for the Big Ten Network. He would be an asset on any team’s coaching staff, and now Notre Dame’s loss is Ohio State’s gain.

Considering his history, it was bound to happen at some point, but for Freeman and the young Irish linebackers Laurinaitis tutored during this brief but fruitful association, it still hurts.

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.