The last offensive lineman to start as a true first year at Northwestern is preparing for the NFL right now. But with the way his successor’s first season began, Wildcat fans might be justified in dreaming just as big for Rashawn Slater’s mentee.
Already the highest-rated offensive line recruit for Northwestern in the prospect rankings era, left tackle Peter Skoronski has immediately been thrown into the trenches, and though he has seen action in just one game against a, to put it politely, subpar defensive front, hopes for the true first-year continue to rise.
“They’ve both got good genes, and not the type you buy at the store,” said second-year offensive line coach Kurt Anderson when asked to compare Slater and Skoronski. “But I think the other thing that makes them similar is that they put in the time and the effort to perfect their craft.”
Slater’s father Reggie played 12 years in the NBA, while Skoronski’s grandfather was an NFL champion offensive lineman for Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers.
For Slater, the hunger for knowledge that Anderson alluded to has already culminated in one of the greatest individual careers by a Northwestern offensive lineman and, should things proceed as projected, a near-surefire spot in the first two days of the 2021 NFL Draft. Skoronski has a ways to go to reach those heights, but with help from both his predecessor and the veteran group he has joined up front, the tackle has impressed.
“Rashawn’s been a really great resource for me,” said Skoronski. “We interacted over the summer, had a couple of practices together. But even with him gone, he’s been texting me advice, telling me what I can improve on.”
In his first game, Skoronski, who played tackle in high school but was listed as a guard and occasionally a center by recruiting services, showed off that versatility. He particularly excelled in the passing game, working one-on-one to protect Peyton Ramsey’s blind side for the majority of the night and even recording a pair of unconfirmed pancakes in the third quarter, a rarity in pass protection.
Though Skoronski and his line mates excelled in the passing game, refusing to allow a sack, they were arguably more impressive clearing holes for the rushing attack. Noting that Maryland’s run defense is horrendous, surpassing 300 yards is nothing to scoff at, particularly when working with an entirely new playbook and a limited offseason to install it.
“It’s a completely different setup. It’s a completely different offense,” Anderson said, comparing the current concepts to Mick McCall’s infamous zone-dominant run game. “Coach Jake [Mike Bajakian] and I both have very similar pro-style backgrounds...we’re gonna be very multiple with the types of runs that we have in terms of schemes.”
A lion’s share of the credit for the immediate effectiveness of that multiplicity must go to the two redshirt seniors Skoronski name-checked as leaders who have helped him get acclimated so quickly. Nik Urban, occupying the left guard position he earned prior to last season and has excelled in since then, and Gunnar Vogel, who has had a roller-coaster ride at right tackle over the course of his Northwestern career, seems to have finally settled in if the end of last season and the start of this one are anything to go by.
All five members of this front deserve credit for the immediate cohesiveness they showed within a wholly new and complex system, executing extremely different runs with varying levels of difficulty. Sam Gerak, who was largely solid at guard last season, filled Jared Thomas’ role at center hardly missing a step. Ethan Wiederkehr was perhaps the weakest link in Week 1, but was still largely solid given his very recent transition from tackle. And Skoronski’s athleticism was on full display in the run game, getting to the second level with striking ease on multiple occasions.
Things won’t be nearly as easy against future pro defensive lineman Chauncey Golston —who should be matched up mostly against Vogel but may see Skoronski a time or two — and an Io_a front that has plenty of talent despite struggling against Purdue. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald acknowledged the challenge, saying earlier in the week the unit has plenty to improve upon after ditching some of the techniques it showed in practice leading up to Maryland.
“There’s stuff that he needs to clean up,” said Anderson of his true first year’s debut. “He’s athletically talented, he’s gifted, he’s very very bright. And I think there’s better football ahead of him.”
Given just how much success Skoronski and the rest of the line had last week, the tone of Anderson’s comments should be cause for significant concern for the Hawkeyes. If the highly-touted recruit can maintain his aggression, athleticism, and impressive natural skill while fixing a few rookie mistakes, Northwestern’s offense will have the ability to be a force for any Big Ten defense to reckon with.