In Orlando’s Camping World Stadium, a sea of purple descended upon midfield, huddling around a dual-posted trophy adorned with a bowl of oranges. After finishing Big Ten West champions, Northwestern won the 2021 Vrbo Citrus Bowl — among the victors relishing in the celebration was Peter Skoronski, half a year removed from graduating high school at the top of his class.
As a true first-year, Skoronski started every game for the Wildcats in 2020, including its bowl game triumph. The left tackle posted an 81.4 overall Pro Football Focus grade, the highest among qualified true freshmen offensive linemen in the country, and earned a spot on the All-Big Ten Second Team.
It’s rare for a newcomer to leave such a prodigious impact in their first collegiate season, but it may be even more unique to proliferate the hype the way Skoronski has. Wildcat fans and NFL personnel put Skoronski’s name on deck, his ceiling teeming with potential. Now, two years later, the roof might not be spacious enough to contain his accolades: preseason All-American, projected top offensive lineman in the NFL Draft and team captain in just his junior year.
While a majority might struggle tuning out the outside noise, Skoronski feels right at home — blazing his own path as Northwestern’s left tackle, poring over every way he can gain an edge over his formidable opponent just inches away.
On Aug. 11, 2020, the Big Ten canceled its fall sports season due to the ongoing uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic only to announce a modified season to begin just a few months later. By Jan. 1, 2021, everyone knew Skoronski’s name, but the timing of the introduction was unexpected.
In the wake of turmoil and questions surrounding the college football season, a bevy of projected draft selections elected to opt out of the 2020 campaign. Among them was Northwestern left tackle Rashawn Slater, who announced his decision on Aug. 20.
When NU began its delayed season on Oct. 24 against Maryland, someone needed to fill Slater’s spot. Skoronski rose to the challenge, flourishing in his first taste of collegiate action. Since his stellar 2020 season, however, the junior feels he’s improved significantly.
“Going into my freshman year, I didn’t have a ton of practice time, so I wasn’t familiar with all the techniques that we had learned,” Skoronski said. “But now, just from a physical standpoint, I’m in a better spot — just stronger, bigger, quicker. I think technically, I allowed myself to really hone in on the certain hand placement, footwork type stuff that I struggled with.”
Starting in the stout Big Ten your first year, in an apocalyptic world of empty stadiums no less, can be daunting enough. Factor in the pressure of trying to replicate the near perfection of Slater, and things may reach a boiling point. To ease any concerns, NU offensive line coach Kurt Anderson instilled in Skoronski a simpler, more institution-based focus.
“When Peter took over for Rashawn, it was, ‘You’re not filling Rashawn Slater’s shoes. You’re filling the left tackle of Northwestern,’” Anderson said. “This is our expectation that we set as a line, so you need to prepare to meet that expectation, not the guy in front of you.”
Skoronski took the advice to heart, embodying the goals of the offensive line’s “NWO” mentality. Now in his third year starting, the 6-foot-4 tackle hasn’t just pulverized defenders — he’s matured in his preparation and leadership.
Anderson mentioned that after a mid-August practice this offseason, Skoronski proactively sparked a conversation about his eye progression, something the coach believes underscores a more sage approach.
“As a freshman, he would have let that go,” Anderson said. “As veteran guy now, something that’s bothering him like that, he’s gonna come up and immediately get it fixed so that it can ease his mind in terms of his preparation for not only the game but just that particular play.”
Likewise, Northwestern’s coaches have noticed Skoronski becoming more vocal and cerebral since his initial days in Evanston.
“Now, Peter is able to think outside of his own role as a left tackle. He’s able to help the guys around him,” offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. “He’s able to see things a little better. That comes with experience and intuition.”
Some might lead with histrionic displays. But when the soft-spoken Skoronski chimes in, he draws attention with pointed comments, his reputation preceding him.
“When he talks, it’s usually when it’s a moment that’s needed; otherwise, he’s gonna put his head down, go to work,” Anderson said. “He’s not really a “rah-rah” guy, but when it’s time for him to lead, people listen because they respect his work ethic, respect how he goes about his preparation, the way he lives his life.”
Skoronski’s ascendance stems from his time at Maine South High School, just around 30 minutes from Northwestern’s lakeside campus. The Park Ridge, Ill. native was ranked as a five-star recruit and held offers from Notre Dame, Michigan, Penn State and Iowa, but ultimately elected to stay close to home.
For Maine South head coach David Inserra, Skoronski’s talent was eye-popping from his preliminary snaps with the Hawks. Inserra said that in his first ever varsity start, Skoronski totaled 13 “legitimate” pancakes; the coach suggested he could have started as a freshman for his eventual state championship team.
Inserra calls Skoronski the best player he’s coached at Maine South, ahead of even some current professional talents, like NFL rookie Kevin Jarvis. The high praise, in large part, is rooted in Skoronski’s unrelenting approach.
“I think he’s just very well grounded. Whether it’s academics or it’s football or it’s the NFL or it’s as a team, he’s just had a good foundation built from an early age, and he hasn’t strayed from it,” Inserra said.
Some top-flight athletes might seek shortcuts in any facet of their preparation given their inherent abilities. But Inserra believes that couldn’t be further from the truth for his former prodigy, who “buys in every day.”
“He truly has never cut a corner in his life,” Inserra said. “He always chooses the harder right.”
In conjunction with tenacity, Skoronski’s smarts, persistent desire to learn and near perfectionism amaze those closest to him.
“I’m just trying to focus on getting better as a player with my technique and my performance,” Skoronski said. “One play at a time, one practice at a time, one game at a time.”
In the case of mistakes — which seem to be rare — the star tackle does not mince words about his own play. That’s not the only manner in which Anderson sees shades of Slater in Skoronski: the coach also points to the tackles’ near-photographic memory of plays.
“They both have an uncanny ability to have in-game, in-practice recall,” Anderson said. “Those guys, you could talk about something and have that situation happen three weeks later, and they’ll instantly recall and execute the technique. Sometimes, as a coach, you’re like, ‘I don’t believe that shit happened.’”
Skoronski and the Wildcats are seeking to rebound from a cataclysmic 3-9 season in 2021. The team could hardly have made a better impression last Saturday in Dublin, defeating Nebraska 31-28 in comeback fashion.
Northwestern accumulated over 525 yards of offense for the first time since 2017, in large part due to Anderson’s offensive line. While Skoronski led the charge with an 89.9 PFF grade — the best mark for a lineman in Week Zero — NU permitted zero sacks.
Ask any player or coach donning purple and white, and it’s evident the invaluable impact Skoronski provides for the ‘Cats.
“Pete’s the best tackle in the country,” senior defensive end Adetomiwa Adebawore said. “Going against that kind of guy, it’s like I’m playing chess. Obviously, it’s getting me better every day going against the best.”
In a similar vein, Bajakian emphasized what having an elite left tackle can provide for offensive protection schemes and designing plays.
“He’s definitely a guy we have a lot of confidence to run the football behind,” Bajakian said. “We know that if we leave him on an island, there’s a good chance he’s gonna come up with the win in that situation.”
Skoronski has undeniably provided such stability for Northwestern through two seasons, even against NFL-level edge rushers. Just last season, the tackle opposed Aidan Hutchinson, George Karlaftis, Boye Mafe and David Ojabo; Skoronski feels such battles elevated his level of comfort.
“I think it’s kind of calmed me down a little bit,” Skoronski said. “Just knowing that I can go out there and hang with someone like that just kind of gives me the confidence that it’s not that big of a deal — just go out there and play football, and you’ll be fine.”
As NFL teams do their homework on Skoronski, they will recognize his last name. His grandfather, Bob, is part of the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame, having won five NFL championships between 1956-1968. In Inserra’s mind, Skoronski’s grandpa is one of his defining inspirations, his snub from Canton additional motivation to reach a Hall-of-Fame career.
“I think that’s something Peter would like to emulate: be exactly like his grandfather and maybe even get him the recognition he deserves by taking that next step,” Inserra said. “Truly, I think he will work like that to become that type of player.”
Talk of enshrinement is nowhere on Skoronski’s radar, however. The Wildcats’ star is in search of constant improvement, unwaveringly committed to mastering his artisanship of being a tackle by studying NFL standouts like Slater.
Of course, the NFL discourse will invariably arrive, presumably at the conclusion of Northwestern’s season. In preliminary discussions that Anderson has had with pro-level personnel, the coach has done nothing but sing Skoronski’s praises, a testament to his attributes.
“You’re talking about almost true renaissance men in terms of well-rounded, high-character guys. There [are] no skeletons in the closet,” Anderson said regarding Skoronski and Slater. “I promise you that if you’re gonna try and tell either one of those guys that they can’t do something, they’re gonna prove you wrong.”
Slater and Skoronski have been inextricably linked since 2020. Rather than run from potential comparisons, the two have confided in one another. In fact, Skoronski consistently stays in touch with Slater, utilizing the LA Charger to glean advice about upcoming matchups and postgame reviews.
“It’s been really helpful and kind of reassuring that I have someone like that as a resource,” Skoronski said. “I feel lucky to have someone like that who can provide that perspective because it’s for one in a million.”
When the NFL Draft inevitably comes, so, too, will microscopic analysis about Skoronski’s arm length and overall frame as a tackle. Franchises slighted Slater over similar measurements, but the Pro Bowler has already silenced critics. Skoronski could very well do the same.
“There’s gonna be teams that are gonna make the same mistake with Peter,” Anderson said. “He’s the type of dude that’s gonna go out there and he’s gonna make some GM’s life living hell because the media’s gonna be all over the fact that, ‘Why would you pass that up? That’s an All-Pro left tackle.’”
Scrutiny aside, Skoronski — Northwestern’s next presentation of the consummate offensive lineman — is wholeheartedly locked in on the slate he and the Wildcats will face in the coming months.
“Whatever people say about that, I don’t really care right now,” Skoronski said. “I’m just worried about playing offensive tackle for Northwestern this season."