Ben Skowronek would have loved to receive a scholarship offer from Notre Dame as a three-star recruit out of Fort Wayne (Ind.) Homestead.
He attended a couple of Irish home games in 2014 hoping to catch someone’s eye. Five years later, the offer finally came.
Skowronek, a 22-year-old senior wide receiver at Northwestern, decided to pursue a graduate transfer in December after an ankle injury cut his season down to just three games. Notre Dame was near the top of his list of potential destinations. This time the interest was mutual.
“It’s kind of full circle,” Skowronek said Thursday, one day after he announced he would be joining the Irish. “I wanted to go to Notre Dame early on in my high school recruitment process, but the opportunity wasn’t offered to me then. It was offered to me now. I’m really excited to be a part of Notre Dame football.”
Not long after Skowronek entered the NCAA’s transfer portal, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound wide receiver took a visit to Notre Dame for its annual awards show on Dec. 13. Even though schools from every Power Five conference were contacting Skowronek, he was sold on the Irish following that visit.
“Once I got on campus, talked to some guys, talked to some coaches and saw everything, I knew it was the place for me,” Skowronek said.
Before his senior season at Northwestern started, Skowronek anticipated this time would be spent preparing for the NFL Draft. In his sophomore and junior seasons with the Wildcats, he caught 90 passes for 1,206 yards and eight touchdowns. A big senior season could have launched him closer to his dream of playing professional football.
Instead, Skowronek was forced to start learning about ankle surgeries. Less than a week after injuring his ankle in Northwestern’s 31-10 loss to Michigan State, Skowronek traveled to Birmingham, Ala., to have Dr. Norman Waldrup perform what’s referred to as tightrope surgery. The procedure has gained acclaim recently after Waldrup, one of Alabama’s team doctors, operated on Alabama star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool had a similar procedure done on his right ankle before the 2019 season. Skowronek declined to disclose whether his injury was to his right or left ankle.
Through feedback at Northwestern, Skowronek was told that he should stay in school for another year rather than trying to enter the 2020 NFL Draft.
“It’s always been my dream to play in the NFL, but you have to be realistic with it at some point,” Skowronek said. “It was kind of tough for me to grasp at first. I really wanted to take the leap to the NFL, but I realized they’re right. I do need another year to prove that I’m healthy, improve my draft stock and get bigger, faster and stronger to be a better football player.”
Analyst Scott Wright of draftcountdown.com agreed with that assessment.
“Had he been in this draft and had he stayed healthy, he probably would have been more of maybe a late-round pick, probably more of a free agent type,” Wright said. “Good player though.
“He’s not really fast, but he has a big body. He’s a possession receiver. Notre Dame certainly has question marks now with their passing attack. Losing Claypool and with (tight end Cole) Kmet leaving now, they need some certainty there and he’ll provide that for them. But he’s not going to be the playmaker in the passing attack that Claypool and Kmet were.”
Skowronek, who caught 12 passes for 141 yards while serving as one of Northwestern’s captains in 2019, saw opportunity at Notre Dame. Back at Northwestern, he would have been rejoining an offense that entered Friday ranked No. 126 (of 130) in the FBS in passing offense for the 2019 season.
At Notre Dame, Skowronek’s entering an offense with returning starting quarterback Ian Book. Playing with a quarterback entering his third season as a starter at Notre Dame was a big selling point for Skowronek. Northwestern started three different quarterbacks last season.
“I wanted to go somewhere with a proven quarterback. He’s very proven — one of the best quarterbacks in college football,” Skowronek said. “Being able to sit down with him and talk a little bit — this is a one-year deal for me, so the quarterback was a very important piece to my decision.”
With Claypool, Kmet and wide receiver Chris Finke gone next season, Book’s leading returning pass catcher is tight end Tommy Tremble, who caught 16 passes for 183 yards and four touchdowns in 2019.
Skowronek will give Notre Dame another option at its boundary receiver position with juniors-to-be Kevin Austin Jr. and Micah Jones, and Javon McKinley if he returns for a fifth year.
“There was no promised playing time,” Skowronek said. “Competition brings out the best in people, so I’m excited to get up there and join a receiver room that already has a lot of talent. Just continue to get better, to continue to grow as a person and find my role for next fall.”
Skowronek had multiple conversations with head coach Brian Kelly, wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander and recruiting coordinator Brian Polian. He even reunited with quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees, who was involved with Skowronek’s initial recruitment to Northwestern, during his Notre Dame visit last month.
But he didn’t need a hard sell. Notre Dame made plenty of sense for him. Skowronek, who majored in communication studies at Northwestern, said he’s still nailing down what he’ll study at Notre Dame, but he already has been admitted to graduate school and will be on campus in January and ready to compete in spring football.
“It was a quick recruitment process,” Skowronek said. “I’ve been through college football. I’ve played four years. I kind of knew exactly what I wanted in a program. I knew what to look for. Notre Dame checked every single box. It was a pretty easy process.”