In any given game, Laguna Beach High senior Sean Nolan can be seen lining up at eight, sometimes nine different spots on the football field.
Offensively, he is the Breakers’ best wide receiver, catching at least one touchdown pass from all four receiver positions.
Defensively, he’s a fast, instinctual free safety and someone who can slide down to the cornerback spot and shut down an opposing receiver when needed.
But Nolan’s duties aren’t finished until he has boomed a high arching punt, pinning the opponent deep in its territory. He’s also quite the threat as a kickoff and punt returner.
Nolan’s all-around play is a big reason why the Breakers are off to a 5-1 start, their best in six years.
His versatility was on full display last week in a 21-18 win over Marina at Westminster High, where Nolan caught six passes for 136 yards and three touchdowns. He also darted across the field for an interception, stopping a Vikings’ drive with 5:50 left to play, and converted a fake punt with a 27-yard run in a fourth-and-long situation on Laguna Beach’s first possession of the game.
Through the first six games, Nolan has amassed 38 receptions for 526 yards and 10 touchdowns. He has picked off two passes, and he is averaging 135.2 all-purpose yards per game and 40.7 yards per punt.
Those types of efforts, while still very impressive, come as no surprise to Nolan’s teammates or his coach, John Shanahan. To them, his exploits are just another example of Sean being Sean.
“Yep,” Shanahan said confidently when asked if he anticipates performances like that from Nolan every game. “If Sean is open, we throw the ball to him because we know he’s going to make a play. He doesn’t force the game, it comes natural to him and it’s worked out well for us.”
Nolan’s football adaptability wasn’t developed in the traditional sense. He didn’t pick up the game until the fifth grade when he arrived from Ireland, but playing rugby in his native country since the age of 4, he described the transition to football as being quite simple.
“It wasn’t a difficult transition to football,” Nolan said. “A lot of what I learned playing rugby translated to football, especially on defense and with hand-eye coordination. It was pretty much just learning the rules.”
Once Nolan got the rules down, everything else came pretty naturally to the 6-foot-2, 180-pounder.
“In rugby you need to be able to do everything because you don’t have one set position,” Nolan said. “You’re out there and free. On defense I can play a lot of different positions because I feel like a lot of them are the same, just in different spots on the field. Same with punt returns and kick returns, that’s just running the ball and finding lanes.”
Nolan continues to use rugby not only as a means to fulfill the sport he’s truly passionate about, but also to advance his football skill set.
He spent the entire summer back in Northern Ireland training with the Ulster academy team, a feeder-type of program for one of the country’s professional rugby teams based out of Belfast.
Nolan believes the grueling workout regimen has helped him take his game on the gridiron to another level.
“It’s a result of my growth,” he said of his production this season. “I played rugby a lot over the summer and got bigger and stronger. It was my first year at the academy and it was a great experience. Rugby in the U.S. is not the same at all, so going back and getting to play with some of the best athletes in Ireland was really good.”
Shanahan said he had people ask him if he was worried about Nolan being overseas for the entire summer and perhaps losing some of the chemistry the team had built over the last couple of seasons. But it had the opposite effect.
“I told them, ‘No, I loved it,’ because they were going to drive him,” Shanahan said. “We’re restricted in the summer, but over there they can take the guys from 8 in the morning until 8 at night and drive them to the best athletes they can be. It gave all of our other guys a chance to step up over the summer and get better. That was a huge blessing in disguise for us.”
Nolan’s focus in the short term is to help this Laguna Beach football team finish out the regular season strongly, continue to build upon its four-game winning streak, and carry that momentum into the Pac 4 League and the CIF Southern Section Division 12 playoffs.
The Breakers, ranked No. 4 in their division, have one more nonleague game on Friday, when they host No. 6 Arcadia Rio Hondo Prep (4-1), before opening league play at Western on Oct. 12.
“We’ve been practicing super-hard and the chemistry is starting to come together,” Nolan said. “This is coach Shanahan’s third year and we’re all buying in and understanding that what he does works.”
In the long term, Nolan has his heart set on going back to Ireland upon his graduation from high school to pursue his dreams of becoming a professional rugby player.
“I’ve played since I was 4 years old, and being from Ireland, rugby is what I love to do,” he said.
But if he were to decide to give college football a try, his coach has an unwavering belief that his multi-positional athlete has what it takes to succeed.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Shanahan said. “His skill set is elite. He’s probably a 70% rugby [guy], [a] 30% football guy, but if he dedicated himself full time to football, he could definitely play college football.”
Born: Dec. 11, 2000
Hometown: Waterford, Ireland
Height: 6 feet 2
Weight: 180 pounds
Coach: John Shanahan
Favorite food: Burgers and fries
Favorite athletic moment: Playing for the U.S. in the first Eagle Impact Rugby Academy tour in eighth grade and defeating British Columbia.