It's the last play of James O'Shaughnessy's collegiate career that tells you all you need to know about him.
The Illinois State tight end had already flashed a complete offensive game in the FCS title game against North Dakota State. While his team lost 29-27, O'Shaughnessy caught two touchdowns that day, including a 41-yarder, and flashed the sort of overall skills that would cap a strong highlight reel of his senior year. But in such a close game, O'Shaughnessy wasn't going to relent and capped his career with a play that sums it all up: knocking himself out of the game by going all out on a kickoff.
"On the last play of his career, he knocked himself out making an unbelievable tackle on a kickoff in a national championship game," said Illinois State head coach Brock Spack. "He wasn't even on the field the last drive. If he was on the field the last drive, it might have been different, but he knocked himself out making a heck of a play."
When it came to the Redbirds, Spack and his staff had to pare down on how much they used O'Shaughnessy. He was just that good. The special teams coaches were dying to use him as much as possible, but a greater offensive impact could be found if they let him breathe. Yet it's this sort of broad experience at ISU that will likely let him stick at the pro level.
"He loves the game, like all players tend to," said Illinois State assistant coach Greg "Moose" McLain. "We had to really hold him back from playing on special teams this season, because he was really good this year for us. And as you know, you look at the tape, his last play of his career in college was running down on kickoff.
"I think he would be a great special teams player, and he can be a guy that may not bear down on a line of scrimmage or embark right away on the opposition, but he's a very motivated player. He's really a 'move' guy. And he can really run, and move around a little bit. He's fast in college, but he will pick up speed and adapt right away."
O'Shaughnessy wasn't always this good. He also wasn't always this big. As a three-year letter winner in both football and basketball at Naperville North High School in the suburbs West of Chicago, O'Shaughnessy was more known for his impressive athleticism, a trait he inherited honestly from parents who were both college athletes. His father, Jim, played basketball for DePaul and his mother, Sally, ran for Drake's track team.
Coming into Illinois State, he was initially listed as a wideout but it didn't take long for the coaching staff to see a frame upon which they could really develop O'Shaughnessy into something bigger -- and better. Fortunately, the incoming player was ready and willing to make whatever transitions the coaches asked him to make.
"I was just telling a guy that the work ethic with James is real," said Spack. "He is a guy who worked hard at it and started buying into the program. We have a tremendous strength coach here, and he does a great job with our guys. James just started getting better and better and better.
"He came in as a receiver. He was probably a little under 6'4 and about 190 pounds, and he came up to about 250. He really worked hard at it and got better and better. We never knew if he was going to turn into the guy we wanted him to be on the line of scrimmage, and then he ended up begin a pretty good blocker.
"We always thought he had really good ball skills, you know," he continued. "He's a receiver by trade, but he ended up being pretty salty on the line of scrimmage. That's what really makes you proud as a coach -- that a kid developed the physicality, a kid got into the program and got physical and became a real player."
"We were always talking about [his pro potential, he and I, as we all do with every player," said McLain. "I told him before he was even a starter that it was up to him to be a real offensive leader of the team, and he had a big year. I mean, this season alone, his numbers were better than the past three years combined, so he had a great senior year, and did very well. I knew he had potential to do it. He had to work really hard to put himself in a good situation like he did, and the work paid off for him."
A perfect fit
When added together, all of these traits show exactly why John Dorsey made the call to select O'Shaughnessy with a fifth-round selection in the 2015 NFL Draft. The Chiefs already have one of the league's best tight ends in Travis Kelce and an intriguing developmental prospect in Demetrius Harris. However, they also lost Anthony Fasano and needed another well-rounded addition in the fold.
"He was telling me about the teams that were interested, and they were one of the teams," said McLain. "I didn't personally talk to them when they first came out, but I knew they had lost a tight end, and that would be a great possibility for them. They had a great visit going up there, when he met with them, and he was very excited about it. He was hoping that they would take a chance on him, and they obviously did. Now we will see where it all ends up."
Given his complete set of skills and strong work ethic, O'Shaughnessy looks the part of a solid roster addition for the Chiefs offense and special teams units.
"I have a couple friends that are saying that it's always hard to find a guy with his kind of ball skills that will block on a second level, who can block linebackers, and can really move and tack down safeties," said Spack. "He can do that. He gets up on people on the second level and he's really sticky. It's hard to get off him. He's strong and tough and physical, but he's athletic enough to move his feet and stay in front of a guy. And then he has the ball skills."
O'Shaughnessy still faces the same transition to the speed and strength of the pro game that every college player does, especially coming from the Missouri Valley Conference.
"I think he's going to have to realize how good the players he's playing against are, and how he might not be able to create as much separation as he did here," said Spack. "I think the quickness and suddenness of the linebackers that run like running backs will be something he'll have to get used to. I think he's used to physical practices, since we do that here, but it's just a different type. It's a suddenness and an explosive power. We have to see if it's going to be a challenge. It's a challenge for any rookie, but it will be a challenge for him for sure."
Even with the challenges and growth curve ahead, O'Shaughnessy's college coaches were quite clear that they expect him to succeed.
"He's an all-around player, and [the Chiefs] will be surprised at what they see. I don't have many doubts," said McLain.