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irish insider

Scramble drill: Skowronek adjusting on the fly, adds new dimension to Irish offense

| Friday, December 18, 2020

As Notre Dame grinded its way to a 4-0 start on the strength of its run game and defense, the underperforming passing game came under intense scrutiny. The deep passing game was shaky at some times and nonexistent at others. Graduate student quarterback Ian Book was avoiding mistakes, but the lack of a vertical aspect to the Irish offense seemed to be a fatal flaw that would spell doom against premier opponents. Then, graduate student and transfer wide receiver Ben Skowronek emerged.

After spending his undergrad years at Northwestern, Skowronek transferred to Notre Dame, where he spent his first few games hampered by a hamstring injury. Irish fans heard his name a few times in their fourth clash of the year, when Skowronek made a few key catches to preserve Notre Dame’s clock-killing, game-ending drive in a 12-7 win over Louisville.

“Not having spring ball and missing a chunk of camp and preseason with the hamstring,” Skowronek said of what caused a slow start to his career in the blue and gold. “It was tough but I’m finally getting comfortable in the offense and really feeling like I can play loose.”

John Quackenbos | Boston College Athletics
Irish graduate transfer wide receiver Ben Skowronek tries to bring in an errant pass during Notre Dame’s 45-21 win over Boston College on Nov. 14. A transfer from northwestern, Skowronek leads the Irish in receiving touchdowns with five on the year.

Playing loose and getting loose is exactly what Skowronek did in his next game, as he caught just two passes, but both receptions went for touchdowns, totaling 107 yards. The first came on a third-down slant, as he elevated to catch a high pass over the middle before outrunning his defender to the end zone from there. In the second quarter, Skowronek beat his defender in the air on a post route, before shaking the tackle attempt when he landed and racing into the end zone for a 73-yard score.

“I’ve always liked playing on the road,” Skowronek said. “Making plays early really helps. If you’re making plays early, [Book] is probably going to come back to you later.”

That game set the tone for the Irish’s improved passing attack, which has seemingly improved in each of its subsequent games, including a win against then-No. 1 Clemson that seemed impossible after the Irish squeaked by ACC cellar-dweller Louisville by the aforementioned 12-7 score. Last time out on the gridiron, Notre Dame decked Boston College, and its early offensive onslaught — 31 points in the first half — was sparked by Skowronek, who caught three touchdown passes on the afternoon, all in the first half.

His big day caught the notice of many, including NFL receiver Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson, who utilized the fire emoji three times while complimenting Skowronek on his Twitter account.

“I was like ‘whoa, that’s Ochocinco,’’ Skowronek said. “I was in shock at first  — he’s one of the best to ever do it.”

Entering a clash against No. 19 UNC, (No. 25 in the AP Poll), Notre Dame has seen Skowronek emerge as one of its clear-cut top receivers, and he’s an obvious red-zone threat, having secured five of Book’s 11 touchdown passes on the year. Nobody else has more than two.

“I’m coming in every single day, working on my craft, and building that relationship with Ian and the rest of the offense,” Skowronek said. 

That relationship with Book has been a constant in Skowronek’s time with Notre Dame, starting with his official visit last spring, when he was hosted by the quarterback. Neither player was exactly a blue-chip prospect when entering college, creating an underdog mentality that has fueled the bond between the quarterback and receiver.

“We both have chips on our shoulders — we weren’t the highest-recruited guys out of high school,” Skowronek said. “We’ve had to work for everything, work our way up to being starters at Notre Dame.”

Indeed, Skowronek was the more desired prospect with 14 offers, but just seven of those offers came from Power Five schools, and although Notre Dame showed interest, an offer didn’t follow. Skowronek chose Northwestern, where he became a top receiver for the Wildcats. Meanwhile, Book fielded five offers, with just two from Power Five schools, and he ultimately selected the Irish, after head coach Brian Kelly and his recruitment team abruptly entered the picture with a late offer. Both three-star prospects, the commitments of Skowronek and Book didn’t make national headlines, but their connection is now, both as fifth-years, with their eyes on a national championship. 

While learning the Notre Dame playbook was its own challenge, especially given the struggles created by the pandemic, Skowronek also needed to adjust to the playing style of Book, who was recruited as a pro-style quarterback but has flashed dangerous ability with his legs. Book is adept at escaping pockets, but then the challenge becomes whether he can find a receiver downfield, or if he has to just run for whatever yards he can garner. 

“Scramble drills are hardly ever the same. It’s not a play in the playbook. With Ian’s mobility, there’s gonna be a lot of scramble opportunities,” Skowronek said of adjusting to Book’s mobility. “Just get open, and be in the right spot.”

Judging by Skowronek’s increased role in the offense, he’s been getting in the right spot more often than not, and he’ll be looking to do more of the same against UNC, which could turn into a shootout. The Tar Heels have not scored less than 26 points on the season. Book will go toe-to-toe with sophomore Sam Howell, who has led the explosive UNC offense to just over 43 points a game. Skowronek emphasized the need to do the little things right, which will help ensure they keep Howell off the field while avoiding self-inflicted mistakes.

“Taking care of the football, converting on third down and having a high efficiency in the red zone,” Skowronek said. “We just have to control the ball and be smart.”

John Quackenbos | Boston College Athletics
Irish graduate transfer receiver Ben Skowronek catches a touchdown pass despite a defensive pass interference during Notre Dame’s 45-31 win over Boston College on Nov. 14. Skowronek recorded three red zone touchdowns against the Eagles for an Irish passing game that had been floundering from the opponent 20-yard line inward.

However, there are more challenges than just the opponent that Notre Dame faces Friday. Starting with their first Friday game in nearly 40 years, the Irish are facing a series of unprecedented circumstances, both regarding this game and beyond. With no students on campus, beginning their 10-week winter break, the football team will be under scrutiny to follow protocol and avoid COVID-19-related problems that could throw into question the packed end of their schedule. They have four games in four weeks — that is, if they secure their spot in the ACC Championship game. 

“We have to be smart. We are in a position where one slip-up can cost us a chance at winning a national championship,” Skowronek said. “I think every single person in the locker room has bought in.”

Specifically in the UNC game, Notre Dame is not only playing on a Friday, but Black Friday, so the players won’t celebrate Thanksgiving as a team until Saturday.

“First time I won’t be having Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving,” Skowronek said.

The Northwestern transfer also noted that while he’s used to spending holidays away from home as a collegiate athlete, there’s still one concern he has as a first-year member of the Irish locker room.

“I hope they have good food,” he said.

 

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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