football Edit

Thoughts on Skowronek's transfer to Notre Dame

Bennett Skowronek made the catch that clinched NU's win over Iowa and a BIg Ten West title in 2018.
Bennett Skowronek made the catch that clinched NU's win over Iowa and a BIg Ten West title in 2018. (AP Images)

Bennett Skowronek’s decision to transfer from Northwestern was a double-whammy for Wildcat fans.

The first hit came on Dec. 2, when the NU senior and team captain announced that he was entering the transfer portal. That caught both fans and coaches off-guard.

Then, on Jan. 2, one month later, came the tweet from Skowronek that he would play his graduate transfer year at Notre Dame, of all places. Notre Dame is the Evil Empire to Northwestern fans, the program they love to hate. It’s like Captain America leaving the Avengers to join up with Thanos.

We talked to some sources and offer these six thoughts on Skowronek’s decision to leave Evanston for South Bend:

It’s a business decision: Simply put, Skowronek’s dream is to play in the NFL, and he thinks that playing at Notre Dame for his final year of college eligibility gives him a better chance to do that. There is some logic to his reasoning.

As a wide receiver, Skowronek will be catching passes from fifth-year senior Ian Book at Notre Dame (if Book doesn’t enter the NFL draft). Book will be in his third year as a starter in South Bend and threw for 3,034 yards and 34 touchdowns last season. The four Northwestern quarterbacks who threw passes last year combined for less than half of Book’s total yards (1,404) and a measly six TDs. The Irish finished 21st in the nation in passing efficiency in 2018; the Wildcats were dead-last, 130th.

If you wanted to maximize your ability to catch passes to show off your skills for the next level, where would you go?

Plus, Northwestern has a new offensive coordinator in Mike Bajakian, so Skowronek would have had to learn a new offense no matter where he played. With Notre Dame, he knows what that offense looks like and who the quarterback will be. At NU, both of those things are up in the air right now.

Sources told WildcatReport that Skowronek has likely been thinking about transferring since suffering the injury in Week 3 against Michigan State that would sideline him the rest of the year. As far back as then he was non-committal about returning for the Wildcats.

He was a heckuva Wildcat: You can’t quibble with Skowronek’s production since he arrived in Evanston in 2016. He closes his NU career with 110 catches for 1,417 yards and eight touchdowns. He needed just 346 more yards to make the school’s all-time top 10 in receiving yardage and would have easily made the top five with another productive season. He played as a true freshman in 2016, was the team’s leading receiver in 2017, and accounted for at least 500 yards receiving in all three of his complete seasons.

He also gave Northwestern fans an iconic moment. On Nov. 10, 2018, Skowronek dove head-long into the end zone and stretched out every inch of his 6-foot-4 frame to make the game-winning touchdown catch in the fourth quarter of a 14-10 victory over Iowa. The catch not only clinched the game; it also clinched the West division for the Wildcats, the first Big Ten title of any kind for the program since 2000.

The fact that Skowronek was elected by his teammates to be a captain in 2019 tells you all you need to know about him as a player. He was one of the leaders of the program. He will graduate from Northwestern with his degree. He played for teams that won three bowl games and played in the Big Ten championship game in 2018. In a way, Skowronek already accomplished all that he came to Evanston to do.

In our view, no matter how things out, NU fans should thank Skowronek for all he has given to the program and wish him well at ND. At least the Wildcats don't have to play the Irish next season.

He’s a different kind of grad transfer for Northwestern: Northwestern has had graduate transfers come into and go out of the program over the last couple years.

Two of NU’s primary punters the last two seasons were grad transfers: in 2018, Jake Collins from Western Kentucky was a key piece to that West-division title team; last year, Andrew David from Rice won the job by the end of the season.

Wide receiver Charlie Fessler left Northwestern after the 2018 season to play his graduate year at Richmond. This year, cornerback Roderick Campbell and safety Brian Bullock are joining Skowronek in leaving Evanston to play their final year at another school.

But Skowronek is different than those guys. Campbell and Bullock wouldn’t have been more than backups for the Wildcats this season and are leaving to get playing time and a more prominent role elsewhere, most likely at a lower-level school. Same with Fessler, who is the poster boy for what a grad transfer season can do for a player. Fessler had just 14 catches for 174 yards in three seasons at NU but was a star at Richmond, where he led the team with 68 catches for 869 yards.

Skowronek, though, is already a starter, as well as a captain. He was a three-year starter and would have been one of the top passing targets again for the Wildcats in 2020. Skowronek wasn’t looking for playing time: he was looking for another program.

We’re also curious to know whether at least part of Skowronek’s decision was based on getting an opportunity to play on a bigger stage for a blue-blood program where football is king and the stands are packed on Saturdays.

Skowronek needed just 346 yards to make NU's all-time Top 10 in receiving yards.
Skowronek needed just 346 yards to make NU's all-time Top 10 in receiving yards. (USA Today Images)

There are no hard feelings among players: As you might expect, Northwestern’s players support Skowronek’s decision, at least publicly. Joe Gaziano, fellow captain Trae Williams and even former Wildcats like Justin Jackson all tweeted their support since Skowronek announced his decision.

Again, this is a player who was elected captain, so his teammates think highly of him. The majority of players likely look at this as a decision that was in Skowronek’s best interests as he chases his dream. Very few players will begrudge him that.

That may sit differently with former players, however. One former Wildcat indicated that he doubts that the Northwestern alumni network would reach out a hand to help Skowronek down the road should he be one day looking for a job.

As for head coach Pat Fitzgerald, he said on signing day that the program fully supports Skowronek’s desire to transfer and that he would do anything to help him. Still, privately, you have to wonder if this chaps Fitzgerald. This is a former captain who, after three-plus years in the program, has decided he’d rather play his final year for Brian Kelly at Notre Dame than for Fitzgerald at Northwestern.

His NFL prospects may be limited: One NFL scout told WildcatReport that Skowronek is probably a tweener and that his stock as an NFL prospects is fairly low.

On the plus side, Skowronek has a long body and is a big, physical and athletic receiver with ball skills. But he lacks the straight-line speed to be a wide receiver in the NFL. While tight end has been discussed as a possibility for him, Skowronek is rather narrow-shouldered, meaning that he may not have the frame to gain the weight and strength to play on the line of scrimmage on Sundays. He’s no Danny Vitale or Garrett Dickerson. Plus, WildcatReport has confirmed that Skowronek will be playing wide receiver, and not tight end, at Notre Dame.

One source said that Skowronek’s view of himself as an NFL prospect may not be realistic.

There’s no guarantee that this will work: While Skowronek’s decision from a pass-catching standpoint makes sense on the surface, it remains to be seen how big a role he will have with Notre Dame.

The Irish lose their top three pass catchers from a year ago. Wide receivers Chase Claypool and Chris Finke are graduating, and tight end Cole Kmet, the No. 2 pass catcher behind only Claypool, has declared for the NFL Draft. So Skowronek should theoretically get his share of targets. But Notre Dame, as always, is loaded with talent, with former Rivals four-stars like Branden Lenzy and Micah Jones, who chose ND over NU in 2018, on the depth chart at wide receiver.

It makes sense for Notre Dame to add a player like Skowronek to fill out depth at a position, as any production he adds will be a bonus and the cost is relatively low. The question is, will Kelly choose to use Skowronek as a primary receiver as a one-year rental player, or will he instead focus on developing his own younger players who have multiple years left?

At Northwestern, Skowronek would have been a go-to guy, though in an offense that will likely be mediocre at best in 2020. At Notre Dame, he may be just another receiver.