In the third college football game of his career – not to mention the third football game he had ever been to – Georgia Tech freshman punter David Shanahan found himself with his feet inches from the back of the end zone of Clemson’s Memorial Stadium, a crowd of more than 80,000 eager to see him screw up.
But Shanahan cleanly fielded long snapper Cade Long’s delivery and got the punt away. In a way, that was exactly the sort of experience that Shanahan had sought when he decided to chase an unlikely dream for a young man from Castleisland, Ireland – to earn a scholarship to play college football.
“It’s been great,” Shanahan said Wednesday. “I love it. In some ways, it’s kind of exactly what I expected.”
Shanahan’s journey to Tech rates among the more unlikely in team history, perhaps the most. Shanahan grew up playing Gaelic football, rugby and basketball in County Kerry, talented enough to make Kerry’s under-17 Gaelic football team. He was intrigued by American sports and at around 16 became entranced by the culture and pageantry of college football.
From there, he figured that his path to it would be through punting or kicking, so he ordered footballs online and taught himself to kick. Noticing the success that Australian punters were having in college football through their training at the Prokick Australia academy, he made a video and sent it to the organization. That led to a tryout when one of the academy’s coaches happened to be in England and met him in Dublin, and that led to an invitation and Shanahan’s decision to move to Australia in August 2019 to learn to punt.
“I guess I just thought it’d be a cool thing to do,” Shanahan said in an interview with the AJC before his arrival at Tech. “Everyone tells you to chase your dreams or whatever. … I was just like, I don’t want to look back in 10 years and regret (not going to Australia).”
His training went so well that, in May 2020, in the midst of the pandemic (Shanahan had returned home to Ireland by that point, training on his own), he accepted a scholarship offer from Tech coach Geoff Collins, a complete rarity for someone born and raised in Ireland. (North Carolina punter Ben Kiernan is from Ireland, but moved to the U.S. in high school, learning the game here.) He arrived this summer and won the job in the preseason. He described his first game, against Northern Illinois in the season opener, as a “crazy” experience.
“I just kind of closed my eyes and swung at it,” Shanahan said. “It went 40 yards. I don’t know how it went 40 yards. After that, I was actually pretty confident in the sense that it was pretty much the same as practice was. I felt like if I could do it in practice, I could do it on game day.”
Playing at Death Valley was a grander stage. He punted seven times with a so-so net of 34.7 yards but was not overwhelmed, as a newcomer to the game might expected to be.
“One thing coach Collins always says is, ‘Make it smaller than it is,’” Shanahan said in his distinctly Irish accent. “We treated Clemson the same as we treated Kennesaw (State) and Northern Illinois. I tried not to get too caught up in it. Definitely, I was looking around in warm-ups, and I was like, oh, my God. But it was fine. It wasn’t too bad. It was still just catching the ball and kicking it.”
He has embraced his new friendships, becoming particularly close with the other specialists, such as Brent Cimaglia, Austin Kent and Long.
“But honestly, everyone here is so nice,” Shanahan said. “That’s probably one of the things that made the transition so easy. Like the first week I was here, everyone introduced themselves, made me feel really comfortable. There’s really a lot of good dudes on this team.”
Said linebacker Quez Jackson, “Of course, we all have a lot of work to do, still got a lot of work to put in, but we love the strides he’s making, and he’s a great guy. We’re glad to have him on the team.”
Going into Tech’s game at Duke on Saturday, Shanahan ranks 62nd in FBS and eighth in the ACC in punting at 42.0 yards per punt. Four of his 21 punts have gone 50 yards or longer, and six have been fair caught. He has immense shoes to fill, following Ray Guy Award winner Pressley Harvin, but has served the punt team by being able to punt in a variety of styles, kicking for distance, direction and using the rollout, rugby-style punt. Shanahan is especially versatile in that he can kick with either his left or right foot, a product of playing Gaelic football – something of a mix between soccer and rugby.
After North Carolina blocked Shanahan’s first punt, taken with his left foot, he took the next one with his right foot, stepping away from the rush, and unloaded a 53-yard bomb that was returned only seven yards.
“I feel like every kid in Ireland can kick with both legs,” Shanahan said. “That’s just how we grow up. So that wasn’t too much of an adjustment.”
He’s learning as he goes. He said he wasn’t expecting to spend so much practice time standing around. Especially when the team practices at Bobby Dodd Stadium, “we’re just kind of on the sidelines looking busy,” he said. He has learned some American slang, like “no cap, bro” – an expression similar to “that’s the truth.” Balancing football and school – he’s in the business school – has been another adjustment.
“But I love it,” he said. “So far, so good.”