Notre Dame’s 25 Most Important Players: No. 22, Ben Skowronek
Over the next month, BlueandGold.com will feature a countdown of the 25 most pivotal figures counted on to help lead Notre Dame back to the College Football Playoff in 2020.
This is not necessarily about who is the best player or the top pro prospect. It’s more along the lines of individuals who need to either emerge, remain a centerpiece or significantly elevate their production to facilitate the Fighting Irish goal of climbing toward championship timber.
Much is based on talent and impact, but a premium is also placed on these questions: 1) If you subtracted this individual from the roster, how much of a setback would it be? 2) If this less proven player emerges and makes an impact, how much does that raise the ceiling (or lower it, if a breakout does not happen as expected)? The players and their ranking were determined by vote from five BlueandGold.com writers.
Fourth in the countdown is Northwestern graduate transfer wide receiver Ben Skowronek, who collected 28 points in our poll.
Why Skowronek Is Ranked No. 22
Maybe the best way to summarize it is without Skowronek, Notre Dame’s career catch total returning among its 12 receivers, tight ends and running backs is 109, led by senior running back Jafar Armstrong’s 27 (14 as a sophomore and 13 last year).
Skowronek himself nabbed 110 (1,417 yards, eight touchdowns) while at Northwestern.
That is not to imply that Skowronek is better than every potential receiver target on the 2020 Fighting Irish roster, or even combining them all. Rather, it’s that he supplies much-needed reinforcement in at least three areas.
• Experience/production. The reception total speaks for itself. No other returning wideout has more than 13 catches, by junior Lawrence Keys III.
• Leadership. Skowronek was selected as a captain for the 2019 Wildcats before an ankle injury required surgery and led to taking a medical redshirt.
• Size. Next to junior Micah Jones, who is 6-4½, 210 pounds but has not yet caught a pass at the collegiate level, the 6-3, 224-pound Skowronek is the tallest wideout among the dozen scholarship athletes, and the biggest.
That is significant for the Fighting Irish, whose last three top receivers all were selected in the NFL Draft: 6-5, 203-pound Equanimeous St. Brown (sixth round) in 2018; 6-4, 228-pound Miles Boykin (third round) in 2019; and 6-4, 229-pound Chase Claypool (second round) in 2020.
Again, that is not to say Skowronek is in their class at this time. However, when you lose your top three targets from last year in Claypool, tight end Cole Kmet (also a second-round pick in the 2020 draft) and Chris Finke, replacing those combined 150 catches for 2,008 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2019 is going to be a formidable task.
The background Skowronek brings is vital to that wideout room, even though he has not yet actually played in a Notre Dame uniform.
Skowronek’s Status Entering The Season
Popular opinion has been that because of Skowronek’s size, he is destined to play what has been the more impactful boundary (W) receiver position where St. Brown, Boykin and Claypool aligned each of the past three years.
Yet in the lone spring practice held March 5, Skowronek lined up mainly on the field side with junior speedster Braden Lenzy, while junior Kevin Austin Jr., suspended from action last season, and fifth-year senior Javon McKinley, were situated on the boundary side most of the time.
Regardless, we anticipate a veteran such as Skowronek, who helped lead Northwestern to the Big Ten West title in 2018, will be flexible enough to play either spot in what likely will be a liberal rotation.
Notre Dame has a bevy of wideout options to put on the field, including Lenzy’s vertical threat, Austin’s ball skills in any capacity, or the shifty Keys finding openings at slot receiver, never mind splitting out a running back such as Armstrong or using the oft-favored multiple tight end packages.
In Skowronek, Ian Book or any other Irish quarterback should have a reliable alternative for the eight- to 14-yard completions that keep the chains moving, or to provide a physical presence on the edge.
Skowronek has also demonstrated on occasion a flair for the spectacular, but his role will be more about consistency than flash.
What Would Be Considered A Successful Individual Season?
The junior trio of Austin, Lenzy and Keys will be pivotal in the receiving attack. Each has displayed flashes, but none has yet been thrust into a season-long reliability/starting role essential to the team’s fortunes.
Skowronek, on the other hand, has had that, nabbing 45 passes in both 2017 and 2018 at Northwestern. If setbacks continue for the aforementioned trio, it wouldn’t be out of the question that Skowronek could hit the 40-catch mark as a graduate transfer as well.
However, with the myriad options and alignments, we could see more like a 20- to 30-catch campaign for 250 to 400 yards and a couple of scores as a significant complement to the 2020 corps.
Contributions to a program can’t always be measured by raw data either. As a former captain at a Power Five school, the daily leadership Skowronek can provide in the receiver room could be a positive influence as well.
Behind The Ranking
The top 25 was determined in the same manner as the Associated Press top 25. Five BlueandGold.com writers submitted their ballots, and each position on the ballot was given a point value. The top ranking was worth 25 points, No. 2 was worth 24, No. 3 worth 23 and so on down until No. 25, which was worth one point. The players with the 25 highest point totals made the list.
Patrick Engel: 13
Lou Somogyi: 22
Mike Singer: 18
Todd Burlage: Not ranked
Andrew Mentock: 23
Engel on his ranking: “Skowronek is a known commodity at a boundary receiver position filled with unproven players. Maybe he doesn’t raise the ceiling of Notre Dame’s receiver room, but he definitely elevates its floor.
“The Irish have some promising wideouts that will have a chance to earn a lot of targets, but it’s hard to see a proven Big Ten player like Skowronek not grabbing a role in a room that lacks sure things, even if some of his competition has more upside. If Notre Dame’s worst-case scenario with its holdover receivers hits, Skowronek can not only be a stopgap but a weapon.”