Ohio State Football All Decade Team: James Laurinaitis

USA TODAY Sports

Our 2000-2009 "All-Decade Team" series continues with a look at the Middle Linebackers of the aughts, and names the Little Animal as the best.

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The middle linebacker is one of the glamor positions on a defense. They are routinely one of the defensive captains, and the heart and soul of the eleven players hell bent on putting the ball back in the hands of the offense. Ohio State has seen its fair share of incredibly talented linebackers in its long and storied history; from Randy Gradishar in the 70s, to Chris Spielman in the 80s and Andy Katzenmoyer in the 90s.

The talent at the position flocks to Ohio State, so much so that calling Penn State "Linebacker U" seems a tad inappropriate. Today, we're going to look at the middle linebacker position, and name the best of the best to stand in the center of the defensive front. There are several great candidates for our All-Decade team. So who makes the team?

The candidates are:

Matt Wilhelm (1999-2002)

Wilhelm suited up for both Ohio State coaches of the 2000's and became a full time starter his sophomore year in Columbus. In his first appearance in the starting lineup, Wilhelm raced between his man and the rocket thrown by future #1 overall NFL Draft pick David Carr of Fresno State and then proceeded to house an interception for six. Wilhelm was honored as a first-team All-American his senior year and led the Buckeyes in the Fiesta Bowl with a game high 11 tackles. He put together a respectable seven year NFL career afterwards.

Anthony Schlegel (2004-2005)

Anthony Schelgel's journey to Ohio State began at the Air Force Academy, where he was a standout in his freshman and sophomore years for the Falcons. But a different "duty" called, as Schlegel would transfer to Columbus and take over the MLB spot, sitting in the middle of one of the best linebacking corps to ever don the Scarlet and Gray. Schlegel continued his standout play at Ohio State, amassing 166 tackles in his two years, both of which ranked him in the top-three on each of the junior and senior teams. He was a captain of the team, and earned All-Big Ten honors for his play.

Schlegel had a cup of coffee in the NFL, playing for the New York Jets and Cincinnati Bengals before being released by both. He would then take his talents to the Florida Tuskers of the United Football League before calling it a career in professional football. Schlegel recently returned to Ohio State on the coaching staff as an assistant strength coach, where he's been since 2011.

James Laurinaitis (2005-2008)

Schelegel's successor has quite the success story of his own. As a freshman, Laurinaitis saw playing time in all of Ohio State's games and impressed enough to be the Buckeyes' go to second string linebacker by the Michigan game. Fate would then play a critical role for Lauinaitis, as Bobby Carpenter would break his leg on the first play from scrimmage in that 2005 Michigan game, and Laurinaitis was tapped as his replacement. From that moment on, Laurinaitis never missed a game or a start.

In 2006, as a sophomore, Laurinaitis had 115 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and five interceptions. His efforts won him the Bronko Nagurski award as the best defensive player in the nation, as well as spots on the first team All-Big Ten team, and was named a consensus first-team All-American. And it just kept getting better. 2007 saw another productive year on the field, and in the trophy case, as he would win the Butkus and Lambert Awards (best college LB), and another round as a unanimous first-team All-American. In his swan song year of 2008, Laurinaitis would add a Lott Trophy (defensive IMPACT player of the year) and another consensus All-American selection. He would finish his Ohio State career with 365 tackles, 24 TFL, 13 sacks, and nine interceptions.

Brian Rolle (2007-2010)

B-Rolle was a key special teams guy for Ohio State from day one, contributing on three different units his freshman year in Columbus. He continued in that capacity his sophomore season before breaking out as a starter at middle linebacker his junior year. In 2009, Rolle finished second on the team with 94 tackles and quickly became a fan favorite in Columbus. The diminutive middle linebacker was a team captain for the Buckeyes in 2010 and finished first team all-Big Ten. He was Big Ten defensive player of the week four times during that season.

And the winner is...

James Laurinaitis

For as good as Schlegel was in his short career and as strong as Wilhelm's play was during the Buckeyes' title run, Laurinaitis' stint in Columbus was that much better and that much more remarkable. He was a mid-level prospect coming to Ohio State, but played his way into the hearts and minds of Buckeye Nation, and was almost unmatched at the position for three years. His family's connection to the professional wrestling sparked a new fashion trend in the Horseshoe, as the "Little Animal," son of the WWE's Road Warrior Animal, was a crowd favorite.

Well decorated out of college, Laurinaitis was selected with the 35th pick in the 2009 NFL draft, where he has become a leader on the St. Louis Rams' defense, starting all 16 games in all four of his years in the NFL. Schlegel was undoubtedly one of the best at the position over the last decade. But James Laurinaitis was, simply, the best of the era, and one of the best to ever roam the defensive front in Scarlet and Gray.

Did we get this one right? Did we miss anyone? Yours in the comments and poll below.

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