The departure of Chase Claypool to the NFL has left a sizeable hole in the offense of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. In a wide receiver room that lacks experience, can graduate transfer Ben Skowronek be the man to fill Claypool’s role and replace that lost production while increasing his own 2021 NFL Draft stock?
Although the Fighting Irish couldn’t reproduce their 2018 form and make a return to the College Football Playoffs last season, they still had one of the highest-scoring offenses in college football.
That production has gone. After recording 66 catches for 1037 yards and 13 touchdowns last season and then wowing the NFL at the scouting combine, Claypool was a second-round selection of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Claypool’s size, strength, and speed made him a matchup nightmare. How will Notre Dame replace him?
Introducing Notre Dame WR Ben Skowronek
Skowronek arrived in Notre Dame in early January as a graduate transfer from Northwestern. However, his football journey began just two hours away from Notre Dame Stadium in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
A multi-sport athlete, Skowronek played both football and basketball at Homestead High School. Although he was a part of an Indiana 4A State Championship winning team on the court, the gridiron was where he truly excelled.
Showing versatility at a young age, Skowronek played both safety and wide receiver as well as serving as the kickoff and punt returner. Despite registering 52 tackles and 3 interceptions as a safety, it was his skills as a wide receiver that would garner the most attention.
Skowronek set a school record with 133 receptions, 2181 receiving yards, and 26 touchdowns. As the team captain in his final year, he led Homestead to the 2015 Indiana 6A Sectional Championship. His performances saw him recognized as the wide receiver recipient of the 2015 Indiana Mr Football Award.
Skowronek committed to Northwestern
Skowronek had several offers on the table, but the three-star wide receiver committed to Northwestern. As a freshman, he featured in six games, one of only three Northwestern freshmen to see game time. He contributed on offense with 8 receptions for 70 yards as well as appearing on special teams. Over the next two years, he would become a vital part of the Wildcats wide receiver room.
Skowronek led the Wildcats in receiving yards in 2017, racking up 644 yards and 5 touchdowns. He added another 562 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns in 2018, including a phenomenal diving touchdown against Iowa, which secured Northwestern’s place in the Big Ten Championship, the first in program history.
He started his senior year for Northwestern as a team captain and had logged 141 yards on 11.8 yards per reception before having his season ended by injury. After considering a return to the Wildcats, Skowronek entered the transfer portal, ending his Northwestern career with 110 receptions, 1417 yards, and eight touchdowns.
Skowronek brings experience and leadership to the Fighting Irish
On January 1st, Skowronek announced his decision to transfer to Notre Dame. He becomes the most experienced wide receiver in a Fighting Irish wide receiver room that contains a lot of talent but not much in the way of experience or production.
Between Javon McKinley, Braden Lenzy, and Kevin Austin, the projected Notre Dame starting wide receivers had just 558 career receiving yards before Skowronek’s arrival. They also lack the height and physical presence that made Claypool such a valuable weapon. At 6’4” and 238 pounds, Claypool was the epitome of a physical receiver while having an outstanding athletic ability.
Although slightly shorter at 6’3” and somewhat lighter at 224 pounds, Skowronek has a frame more similar to Claypool than any other receiver on the Notre Dame roster. He is the logical replacement.
His size makes him an obvious candidate to play the boundary receiver role, but he also brings versatility to the position, having lined up at multiple spots during his time at Northwestern.
Skowronek’s size and basketball history make him a red-zone threat
Skowronek’s red-zone ability was most noticeably put to use in a toe-tap touchdown grab in the back of the end zone against Akron. Skowronek went up and plucked the ball out of the air while using his physicality to fight off three defenders and his football awareness to get his foot down just inside the line.
There is a further example of his ability to make contested catches in the back of the end zone with this touchdown against Purdue. With a defensive back draped all over him, Skowronek goes up and grabs the ball over the player’s head and comes down with both feet just inside the back corner of the end zone.
The catch that made Skowronek a hero for Northwestern against Iowa and sent the Wildcats to the Big Ten Championship is another example of how well he uses his size. Skowronek stretched out his entire 6’3” frame, diving into the end zone to grab the ball while ensuring his arm was under it to secure the catch.
Could a lack of speed impact his 2021 NFL Draft stock?
The one area where there is a glaring difference between Skowronek and Claypool is speed. Although there are multiple examples of Skowronek burning defenders on his high school tape, his 40 yard dash time was a rather pedestrian 4.62. By comparison, Claypool blew away the competition at the NFL Combine with a 4.42.
Skowronek has been training with Dre Muhammad at Traction Athletic Performance in Fort Worth, where among other things, he has been working on speed training. If he can add just a little more speed and burst, then it will go a long way to improving his overall game.
Although Claypool will be hard to replace, there are reasons to believe that Skowronek can be the guy that leads the receiver room in 2020. It’s worth pointing out that through their first three years in college football, Skowronek had 154 more receiving yards and two more touchdowns than Claypool despite playing in an inferior offense to Claypool’s at Notre Dame.
Skowronek is currently projected to be a late-round or even an undrafted free agent in the 2021 NFL Draft. If he can put together a senior season in South Bend similar to the one Claypool had in 2019, then he will surely see his stock rise by the end of the year.