Neither of the last two seasons have ended the way Clemson hoped they would.
For James Skalski, the bitter disappointment has been two-fold.
Not only have the Tigers’ last two College Football Playoff games resulted in runaway losses, but the veteran middle linebacker that Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has referred to as the heart and soul of the Tigers’ defense also wasn’t around the whole time to help. That’s because Skalski was ejected from both games for targeting.
The first ejection came in the 2020 national championship game against LSU when Skalski led with the crown of his helmet during a tackle on receiver Justin Jefferson. The most recent one happened in January when Skalski inadvertently caught Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields in the back at the end of a scramble during the second quarter of the Tigers’ Sugar Bowl loss.
So it wasn’t exactly surprising to hear what one of the focuses has been since then for Skalski, who enters his sixth season with the Tigers — and third year as a full-time starter — with 1,222 snaps and 210 tackles in 56 career games.
“I’ve worked this offseason on really just head up and tackling the right way,” Skalski said.
For Skalski, though, working on his fundamentals doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be thinking about the way the last two seasons have ended for him personally once he returns to the field. That will happen Saturday in Clemson’s primetime opener against Georgia.
Skalski’s mind will be preoccupied with what Georgia is trying to do offensively, which figures to include a heavy dose of the running game. The Bulldogs ranked fifth in the SEC in rushing last season, and with a deep collection of backs and a Heisman Trophy hopeful at quarterback in J.T. Daniels, Swinney said he fully expects the Bulldogs to go to the ground often to try to set up play-action passes down the field.
It’s the kind of downhill approach that plays more to Skalski’s strengths. The 6-foot, 240-pounder had 44 tackles in eight starts last season on his way to second-team all-ACC honors. As long as he can stay on the field, he figures to play a key role if Clemson hopes to plug the running lanes between the tackles and make Georgia’s offense more one-dimensional.
But there won’t be any dwelling on the past, he said.
“I’m just going to play ball,” Skalski said. “Whatever is going to happen is supposed to happen. That’s the way I look at things. I’m just going to play ball. I can’t wait to be back out there.”
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!