Notebook: Notre Dame WR Ben Skowronek delivering as expected following injury delay
The plan was always for Ian Book and Ben Skowronek to be on the same page.
That’s why Skowronek, a graduate transfer wide receiver from Northwestern, spent two weeks with Notre Dame’s starting quarterback in California during the offseason. In several months as teammates, they’ve already grown close.
“Outside of football, he’s my best friend here at Notre Dame,” Skowronek said of Book. “We do a lot of things together building that chemistry off the field as well. It all pays off on the field.”
The on-field payoff came in Saturday’s 45-3 victory at Pittsburgh. Skowronek caught a pair of touchdown passes for a combined 107 yards from a quarterback desperately looking for a big-play target.
Skowronek hoped to be of more help sooner this season, but a nagging hamstring issue derailed his good intentions. Head coach Brian Kelly said Monday that Skowronek was first sidelined with a hamstring injury in preseason camp. Skowronek returned in time for the season opener against Duke, but he didn’t finish the game because of his left hamstring.
“At the end of the day we had to build this continuity through repetition in practice and you can’t do it unless those guys are out on the field,” Kelly said. “They’re out on the field. Ben is practicing full go. We expect and we hope that we continue to build that relationship with those guys”
Skowronek’s ability to help Book was the main reason Notre Dame targeted the former Northwestern receiver. Skowronek, a product of Fort Wayne (Ind.) Homestead, was already familiar with the Irish and looking for a grad transfer destination.
Notre Dame just so happened to be looking for a veteran receiver with a résumé like Skowronek’s. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Skowronek caught 110 passes for 1,417 yards and eight touchdowns in four seasons with the Wildcats.
“It was clear that we were looking for a veteran presence, somebody that played at a high level and competed at a high level,” Kelly said of the grad transfer search. “If somebody fit the profile that we were looking for, we were in the market for that in a sense. Because we knew we were losing a lot of catches, we were losing a lot of guys that had played a lot of football and that we weren’t returning a lot of guys.
“Ian needed somebody that played a lot of football. Ben fit that profile.”
Skowronek said when he first started working with Book, the two clicked immediately. It took some time to get through the hamstring issues, but Book helped with that too.
“It was very frustrating having a season-ending (ankle) injury last year and then the first game, pulling my hamstring,” Skowronek said after the Louisville game. “It was very frustrating. I wasn’t really in a great place mentally but I had a great support staff in my family, guys like Ian just having my back and always believing in me.”
Book’s trust in Skowronek has become evident in the last two games. All four of Skowronek’s catches, which have totaled 135 yards, have resulted in first downs or touchdowns. Three of the catches have come on third down.
“When you catch the ball and help your quarterback out you start building some trust with him,” Skowronek said after the Pitt game. “Then he maybe starts looking to you more often.”
Skowronek will likely be targeted even more Saturday when the No. 4 Irish (5-0, 4-0 ACC) play Georgia Tech (2-4, 2-3) in Atlanta (3:30 p.m. EDT on ABC).
“Making plays on Saturday is always rewarding when you practice so hard all the way throughout camp and then every single week,” Skowronek said. “(Wide receivers) coach (DelVaughn) Alexander had a clear message. It’s time to show up on Saturdays and make plays.
“I’m happy for our group making plays. There’s a lot more on the table for us to go out and get.”
The “C” word
While Kelly stressed the bigger picture to his team last week while preparing for Pitt, that didn’t mean he mentioned the looming Nov. 7 matchup with Clemson specifically. He wanted his team to aim to play its best with a conference championship and national championship in mind.
Those goals run through No. 1 Clemson (6-0, 5-0), and the Irish aren’t playing dumb about that. But aiming to play at a level required to beat Clemson doesn’t require focusing on Clemson yet.
“Certainly we’re going to prepare the right way for Georgia Tech and that’s what’s important now,” Kelly said. “But the way you play and how you play sets you up for what’s next. What’s next is you know what you need to do to win a championship and who you have to play down the road.
“So that was implicit in that conversation without having to say, ‘Hey guys, in a couple of weeks we’re playing Clemson. Wink, wink, wink.’ We didn’t need to do that.”
• Junior wide receiver Braden Lenzy likely won’t be at full strength this week, Kelly said, which could mean he won’t play against Georgia Tech. Lenzy re-aggravated a left hamstring injury late in Saturday’s game against Pitt.
“We’ll see how it goes, but it’s a lingering hamstring that we need to get him right. He is a speed player. He’s a guy that’s at his best when he’s able to go at 100%.
“And he’s been a warrior. He’s been tough and gritty. Most guys that are quote/unquote guys that have great speed, they don’t handle it the way he’s handled it. He’s handled this injury in a manner that he’s gotten out there and fought through it.
“We need to really think about getting him right before we get him back into a competitive situation.”
Lenzy didn’t record a catch in 34 offensive snaps against Pitt.
• The Irish should have a return to normalcy at cornerback with junior TaRiq Bracy being cleared Monday to resume workouts and practices, Kelly said. Bracy didn’t travel for the Pitt game due to a non-coronavirus illness.
The Irish have started four different cornerback combinations the last four games, but Bracy and graduate senior Nick McCloud are the preferred starting duo. They started together against Louisville, but sixth-year Shaun Crawford and freshman Clarence Lewis filled in starting roles while McCloud or Bracy were limited against South Florida, Florida State and Pitt.
• Junior wide receiver Lawrence Keys III, who has been limited following a concussion, will have the chance to find an increased role this week. His responsibilities on offense and special teams were lessened the last two weeks.
Keys played 19 offensive snaps against Pitt with most coming late in the blowout.
“We didn’t want to get him into too much action, although it ended up being he got quite a few reps, because we pulled quite a few of those guys out,” Kelly said. “And good for Lawrence. I think he felt a whole lot better and he was excited that he got a chance to play and now we’ll get him back into the routine.”
• Though Notre Dame’s defense was playing statistically well through its first four games, Kelly continued to tweak the unit’s preparation last week. He attempted to dial back the practice workload in the hope of seeing more energy on Saturday.
The move must have worked with the Irish creating as many turnovers (three) against Pitt as points allowed.
“We put maybe too much work on our defense in terms of contact, in terms of we did a lot of 11-on-11 situations where maybe when we got to Saturday, we didn’t have the energy necessary,” Kelly said of previous weeks. “You saw a different defense play with flying to the football. We had hats all over the football.
“I removed some of those obstacles during the week to get that back on Saturday.”
• The weekly preparation for Notre Dame’s coaching staff hasn’t changed much with the Irish playing a conference schedule. One advantage of playing ACC teams every week the rest of the season is the crossover between opponents when scouting film.
“You’re a lot more familiar with the opponents because you have a bank of film, where sometimes as we’re preparing (in previous seasons), we’re playing first-time opponents, sometimes we don’t have a great understanding of the opponent we’re playing,” Kelly said. “This is a lot easier in terms of our research in that respect.”
• The ACC named Ian Book its Quarterback of the Week and left tackle Liam Eichenberg its Offensive Lineman of the Week for their performances against Pitt.
Book finished 16-of-30 passing for 312 yards and three touchdowns and rushed eight times for 40 yards, including three first downs.
Eichenberg helped the offense total 434 total yards behind him and the rest of the first-team and second-team offensive lines. Book was sacked twice against a Pitt team averaging more than four sacks per game.
Who: No. 4 Notre Dame (5-0) vs. Georgia Tech (2-4)
Kickoff: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT
Where: Bobby Dodd Stadium; Atlanta
Radio: WSBT (AM 960, FM 96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)
Line: Notre Dame by 19