There was a running joke last football season between Harvard offensive line coach Keegan Kennedy and senior offensive lineman Liam Shanahan.
Shanahan played tackle two years ago and last season moved inside to guard where he was first-team All-Ivy league selection.
“We told him `Hey Liam, if you had another year here, man, we might move you to center,” Kennedy said.
Who knew Kennedy could foresee Shanahan’s future?
When defending national champion LSU opens its 2020 season at home on Sept. 26 against Mississippi State, the Tigers’ starting center will be graduate transfer Shanahan who Kennedy confirmed “plays with a serious physical edge.”
It’s a brave new world for Shanahan, a native of Marlborough, Mass., 32 miles west of Boston. He’s jumping from a conference that doesn’t allow its athletes to play sports as graduate students, to a league that has led all conferences in NFL draft choices for 14 straight seasons.
“Coming from Harvard, I was trying to go to the highest level of college football,” the 6-5, 304-pound Shanahan said. “The football here at LSU is as close as it gets to being on a professional team.”
Shanahan admitted he hasn’t been on a field with so many supersized bodies on the offensive and defensive lines – “In the Ivy League, we had a few 300-pound offensive linemen at Harvard but everybody is here for the most part,” he said – but it doesn’t mean he’s shirking from the challenge.
Anybody who has ever lined up against Shanahan in football or the three other sports (basketball, baseball and track and field) he lettered in at Marlborough High knows his love of competition.
“Liam doesn’t play through the whistle, he plays THROUGH the whistle,” Kennedy said of Shanahan’s high motor. “I loved coaching him every day. He’s a smart, big, strong kid who truly loves football from the bottom of his heart.”
Shanahan’s competitiveness runs deep in his family. His father Tom immigrated to the United States when he was 21 from Ireland where he was a competitive hurdler. Shanahan’s grandfather Tom Lane was a Boston College offensive lineman.
“I loved playing all sports growing up, but I definitely stood out the most in football,” Shanahan said. “It’s where I had the best opportunity to pursue a career and be where I am.”
It’s a good bet this time a year ago Shanahan didn’t imagine he’d be snapping the ball for a team that he couldn’t avoid watching on TV last season when the Tigers blew through 15 opponents for their fourth national title.
“It was impossible not to follow them, they were `the team’ in college football,” Shanahan said. “But growing up, I knew LSU was one of those programs that got national TV games week in and week out. It’s impossible not to have a ton of exposure to LSU.”
Shanahan entered the transfer portal after last season and began drawing interest from Big Ten schools Michigan and Penn State. But he basically shut down his recruiting when LSU offensive line coach James Cregg called him.
Cregg saw Shanahan’s name in the transfer portal and began doing his homework. He talked with Kennedy. He looked at tape of Shanahan and liked enough of what he saw to convince LSU coach Ed Orgeron he might be the versatile grad transfer O-lineman the Tigers needed to ease the loss of four starters to the NFL.
“He (Cregg) showed me the film and said `Coach, you gotta watch this guy’,” Orgeron said. “I thought he was pretty good but you know the competition is not the SEC up there (in the Ivy League).”
The more Cregg spoke with Kennedy and Callahan, he was convinced Callahan had what was required to successfully make the transition from rarely playing before crowds of more than 10,000 fans to Tiger Stadium, which will still have bigger crowds than the Ivy League even with social distancing limitations.
“Liam used to say, `Put me in at quarterback, I’ll practice the you-know-what-out-of-it and do a good job’,” Kennedy recalled with a laugh. “If there’s a direction he needs to go for the team, he’ll do that. In talking with Coach Cregg, it all matched up for Liam. It seemed like a great fit.”
Shanahan has had to adapt to the heat and the humidity as well as bigger and faster athletes possessing skill sets he has rarely faced.
“When I was prepping Liam before he headed down to LSU,” Kennedy said, “I told him, `Hey man, ball is ball.’ He called me during preseason camp and said, `Coach, there’s a 340-pound D-tackle and 370-pound D-tackle.’
“I said, `Just keep doing your thing man, just keep playing with your edge, be yourself, play with your attitude, rely on the techniques that I taught and what you learned. If you stay true to who you are and not try to do anything out of your framework, you’re going to be great.”
Moving to Baton Rouge is the first time Shanahan has ventured across the Massachusetts state line for an extended period of time, so there’s elements of home he misses such as his family and his unique summer job.
During his freshman year at Harvard, Shanahan applied for a groundskeeper position in a Harvard student job database. It wasn’t a job trimming bushes on campus, but rather a spot on the Boston Red Sox groundskeeping crew in Fenway Park.
Much to his surprise, he was hired.
Shanahan has held the job since 2017 and is so devoted to it that he’d take the train after Harvard practices to work night games. When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2018, guess who was awarded one of the team’s World Series championship rings?
“There were a few guys who had been on the grounds crew when the Red Sox won (the World Series) in 2013, and they got rings then,” Shanahan said. “So, we were kind of all hoping they would do it again. Once we got word we’d actually be getting them, it was pretty awesome. It was crazy, exciting.
“You’re not on the team, but it did feel like you’re part of the ride and journey. It was fun to see that culminate with the ring.”
Shanahan saw LSU’s 2019 national championship rings, and he wouldn’t mind getting some sort of ring in his one season with the Tigers.
“Just walking through the halls (of LSU’s football ops building) and seeing the names of the guys who have walked the same halls and come through the program is humbling,” Shanahan said. “That’s the standard that has been set here. We have to do everything we can to live up to that.”
To that end, Shanahan has spent much time practicing snaps with new Tigers’ quarterback Myles Brennan who said Shanahan “took the offense and ran with it.” Orgeron is confident someone with a Harvard degree is qualified to make the correct protection calls at the line of scrimmage.
“Liam has handled the physicality, he’s stayed on blocked, he’s had some outstanding snaps making calls,” Orgeron said after LSU’s first pre-season scrimmage.
Shanahan’s father plans to be at every game and his mother Catherine will attend selected games depending on her weekly schedule. Since the Ivy League isn’t playing football this fall because of the coronavirus, Kennedy and other Harvard coaching staff members plan to tune into LSU games every Saturday,
Shanahan’s long-distance support team is ready, and he is too.
“We’ve been going at it on campus since June,” Shanahan said, “so I can’t wait for the season to get started. I’m pumped.”
(This story will also appear in the September issue of Tiger Rag Magazine which will be at the usual outlets on Sept. 16)