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Don’t Count Out Skalski

By Dave Holcomb
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Dave Holcomb features Clemson linebacker James Skalski.

The NFL Draft is full of underdog stories every year. But Clemson linebacker James Skalski may be the biggest underdog of the 2022 NFL Draft.

At the very least, he’ll be the most well-known underdog of the weekend.

Skalski has been overlooked since high school. 247Sports ranked him a 3-star prospect and the No. 680 overall player in the 2016 recruiting class.

Based on the 247Sports composite rankings, Skalski was the 17th-best player Clemson landed in his class.

Despite that, over the last six seasons – obviously an extraordinarily long college career – Skalski became the heartbeat of the Clemson defense. He went from reserve player to first-team All-ACC and also third-team All-American linebacker.

Skalski is now out to prove his doubters wrong again and become an NFL contributor.

A player with questionable athleticism can’t get to where Skalski is without playing with an edge. He certainly did that at Clemson, displaying his toughness and competitiveness on a weekly basis.

That alone won’t make Skalski an NFL draft pick, but it will place him on the draft radar late on Day 3. Furthermore, the draft process has done nothing but add fuel to Skalski’s internal fire.

Despite an historic career at Clemson that saw Skalski tie the FBS record for 69 games played, he did not receive an invite to the NFL scouting combine.

“There was definitely a chip on my shoulder, for sure,” Skalski said after not being invited to the combine according to Sports Illustrated. “I feel like I performed well enough and long enough over a period of time here, where I deserved an invite.”

The stat sheet certainly suggested that. In 69 career games, Skalski posted 263 total tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks, 18 quarterback hurries and 10 pass breakups.

He finished top five for Clemson in total tackles each of the last three years. In 2021, he led the team with 90 total tackles.

Skalski didn’t accomplish those feats outside the Power 5 or even for a mid-tier ACC program. He starred on and led a defense that won five straight ACC Championships.

No other player in history has won five ACC football titles.

Following his NFL combine snub, Skalski ran the 40-yard dash in 4.70 seconds at the Clemson Pro Day. He also posted a 34-inch vertical and 26 reps on the bench press.

Those measurables likely won’t wow anyone. While it will be hard to find a player with a fiercer competitive edge in the 2022 NFL Draft, NFL scouts say Skalski leaves plenty to be desired from a traits perspective.

“Gritty competitor who has been the heart of the Clemson defense in recent years,” NFL analyst Lance Zierlein of wrote. “Skalski has excellent football character and plays hard, but lacks the athletic traits and explosiveness needed on the pro level.

“The intangibles and special teams background could help, but ultimately, it’s unlikely to be enough.”

Zierlein could very well be correct – Skalski’s intangibles may not be enough for him to make an NFL roster this fall. The draft scouts at ESPN ranked the Clemson linebacker the No. 314 overall player in the 2022 draft class.

There will only be 262 selections.

But Skalski literally made a college career of proving his doubters wrong. It would be unwise to count him out again.

That will remain true even if he goes undrafted. In fact, Skalski could play with even more of an edge if that happens because he’ll have yet another chip on his shoulder as an undrafted free agent.

Regardless of his talent, any NFL team should welcome the opportunity to have a hard working, tenacious prospect like Skalski in their training camp this summer.