James Skalski is a perfect example of how experience pays off.
After playing a reserve role at linebacker and starting on special teams in his first two seasons at Clemson, and then redshirting in his third year, Skalski used every single moment as a learning experience.
Now, as he enters his final season at Clemson, the middle linebacker is not just a year older and wiser, but he is better. He is a better football player than he was at this point last year.
“He’s even more of a leader,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “Just having all that experience, 15 games under his belt, the game has really slowed down for him and he’s playing just very precise in everything that he’s doing.
“He’s playing multiple positions right now and can do it all at a really high level and helps create some depth there, so that if somebody gets banged up, he can do more than one thing. But I’ve been really pleased with Jamie and his leadership and how he’s playing right now.”
Last year, Skalski started all 15 games and finished second on the team with 105 tackles, including 7.5 for loss and 4.5 sacks, while also recording four pass breakups, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.
Prior to COVID-19 halting spring practice, Skalski made an effort to watch film daily and learn the playbook so he can be like a coach on the field for the Tigers.
“I think I’ve just got to be an extension of Coach V, really,” he said. “Me and Nolan are the oldest two guys now on the defense. I’ve got to know it like the back of my hand. I just need to be an extension of Coach V on the field. Because I can always get better and do stuff for myself. But I think what makes a great middle linebacker is making everything around him better, too, and that’s something I’ve been trying to focus on, just know everyone’s job, get everyone on the same page so we can all play good team defense.”
When Skalski failed to make All-ACC last season, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney was not happy about it.
“I’m not sure how Skalski didn’t make it,” Swinney said at the time. “He’s one of my top votes, for sure. I don’t think he even made honorable mention.”
Though Swinney was surprised, Skalski wasn’t. He felt he could have played much better in 2019.
“I’ve missed tackles when I shouldn’t have, just coverage things, just the flow of operations at certain points, just quick fixes during and before plays that I’m responsible for, just little stuff like that,” he said.
In his first year as a full-time starter, Skalski did not disappoint. An All-ACC Academic selection, he is credited with 166 tackles, including 12.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and six sacks.
The senior can also play weakside backer and can run the defense from either position.
“If I’m correct, I don’t think Isaiah Simmons made honorable mention [in 2018], and he’s won Defensive Player of the Year,” Swinney said. “That just goes to show you … he was pretty good last year, too. That is kind of how it goes.”
Skalski was the Tigers’ starting middle linebacker last year. As the quarterback of the defense, he helped Clemson finish third nationally in scoring defense (13.5 pts./game) and sixth overall in total defense (288.3 yds/game).
The Tigers also finished second in tackles for loss and were in the top 10 nationally in several other defensive categories.
“You know, on paper it looks like this great defense that we’ve put on, this great performance we’ve been putting on,” Skalski said. “Personally, I’m kind of disappointed in how I’ve played [last] year. I think I’ve left a lot of money on the table per se. But, overall, yeah, we’re playing really well. Personally, I think I’ve kind of let myself down a little bit. I don’t think I’ve played as well as I could.”
—Gavin Oliver contributed to this story
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