On September 16th, 2006, I found myself heading to Baker Field in Manhattan to watch a budding rivalry. Columbia's game with cross town rival Fordham in the fourth edition of the "Liberty Cup" was national news only in the sense that Columbia head football coach Norries Wilson became the first Columbia head football coach to win his opener since Aldo "Buff" Donelli in 1957.
I never knew that I'd be calling back on my memory of that game to think about NFL draft darling QB John Skelton's debut as a member of the Rams. Put into the game by coach Tom Masella after senior starter QB Derrick Daniels failed to get anything going offensively, Skelton's 3-for-7 performance - throwing an pick-six interception to DB Drew Quinn to put the icing on the Lions' 37-7 win - was nothing to write home about. (After the game, coach Masella said, "We have bye week coming up. Thank God.")
Masella, however, had patience with his freshman signalcaller that lasted a lot longer than that one inauspicious beginning. His patience would ultimately pay off. Skelton would lead the Rams to a Patriot League title his sophomore year - and put the Patriot League on the NFL's draft boards in 2010.
I'll detail some more Patriot League players this week that have a real opportunity to play at the next level. But first, below the flip, I detail my thoughts on the college career of the player with the raw tools that have dazzled NFL scouts - and created a whole lot of internet content - over the past few months. (more)
In Skelton's freshman year, the Rams struggled mightily. By the time Fordham played Lehigh Week 11 in Skelton's freshman year, the 6'5 Texan was the starter and still very much learning the ropes. Calling the Fordham offense a "unit that is struggling to find itself", I pointed out Skelton as an athletic QB but one that struggled with accuracy passing. Freshman WR Asa Lucas and Skelton were working to adjust from Fordham's old power running game to more of a wide-open passing offense. That offense still wasn't really clicking when Lehigh blasted the Rams 45-14, which could have been even more lopsided had Lehigh not called off the dogs up 38-7 in the 3rd quarter.
But the 2006 Rams were built to find their way in the years to come. While Skelton's stat line his freshman year was one of struggle - 960 yards passing in five starts, with 6 TDs and 8 INTs - his sophomore year, one where Fordham would be a surprise winner of the Patriot League title, would be one Fordham fans will be talking about for a long, long time.
It started with Week One, a 27-23 victory over Rhode Island of the CAA. While his stat line read 3 interceptions, it was the final drive where Skelton engineered the game-winning touchdown to WR Jason Caldwell with 15 seconds left that gave a peek to Patriot League fans some of the good stuff to come from Skelton and Fordham.
Still a young team, the Rams didn't finish September well - losing to Albany and Dayton - but from there the Texan showed what he's capable of down the stretch. By the time Fordham played Lehigh in mid-October, Fordham had a surprise win over Colgate and my assessment on Skelton was that he was a big talent both running and passing the ball - but he could possibly be rushed into "sophomore mistakes" by a good pass rush. That didn't happen: in one of his best games up until that point, Skelton's byline read 280 yards and 3 touchdowns in a 28-18 victory over the preseason Patriot League title favorites, the Mountain Hawks. (My words? Eaten.)
In the post-game press conference, I asked coach Masella about his impressive QB's performance and the normally underselling coach instead said the following: "John is a terrific football player. He's turning into a pretty darn good quarterback. As a sophomore, you think you can rattle him, but he's hard to rattle. Whether we're down by 20 or the game's on the line, he just has that composure out there, and each week he's getting better and better as he understands our offense. He's also starting to become the leader of our offense at a very young age. He's the guy."
Skelton then went his next three games without an interception. Now, I don't know if he read this blog and it put a Longhorn-sized chip on his shoulder, but he brought up his game to a level to secure Fordham's first Patriot League championship since Dave Clawson's 2002 team. While the young Rams did stumble to end the year - a 38-24 defeat to Bucknell - they represented the Patriot League well offensively in a 40-30 defeat to UMass, where Skelton passed for 281 yards and 3 TDs.
“That offseason was when my confidence really shot up, and I worked really hard in the offseason and continued to get better the next two years,” Skelton said in a recent interview. He also said in a recent blog radio interview that UMass' head football coach compared Skelton favorably to QB Matt Ryan (now starting for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons) whom they had faced earlier that year at Boston College.
By the end of his sophomore year, Skelton had mastered the offense, and had made a good run against UMass, a team that made it to the FCS championship game (and ended up losing to QB Armanti Edwards and Appalachian State). The Rams also had a core of young players, like LB James Crockett, that made it seem like Fordham could dominate the league immensely over the next two years.
But in retrospect, all of Skelton's Ram teams won though their offense setting up an opportunistic defense - and an offense more focused on Skelton's talent passing rather than the other individual skill pieces. The running game didn't have any dominant player to take the load off, and teams around the Patriot League were starting to discover that Fordham's defense could be burned, and their front seven could lose the battles in the trenches. Even the receiving staff, including WR Richard Rayborn, didn't really have one dominating presence or 1,000 yard receiver.
In 2008 - and unable to sneak up on other teams - Skelton was still an accurate passer and dangerous running the ball. He'd get his completions, but there wasn't that one other player that could beat you singlehandedly. After Colgate got revenge on their 2007 loss by a 34-31 score, Lehigh would beat Fordham resoundingly the following week 45-24, in a game where Lehigh's offense came alive against a small Ram front seven. It wasn't really Skelton's fault they lost, even though his two interceptions marred a 22-for-32, 1 TD performance. With two league losses, the Rams were effectively out of the title chase.
Statistically, Skelton would only throw 7 interceptions all year in 2008, and would complete 61.2% of his passes. As ever, he never had any qualms about taking off and running on occasion, but despite his 6'5 220 frame he ran less and stayed in the pocket more. Though Fordham didn't meet their preseason expectations, Skelton was clearly not only their biggest offensive star but the unquestioned leader on offense as team captain. The question was would anyone else step up to be a go-to-guy on that offense.
His senior year, I told anyone who would listen to "watch out for Fordham". I knew Skelton was a very talented quarterback, and if they put everything all tougether, watch out. Unfortunately for the Rams, it didn't work out that way.
In their two opening losses, Fordham gave up 81 points to both Columbia and Rhode Island - and Skelton, with his 4 interceptions, didn't help. In Week Three at Colgate (in a rainstorm), Skelton seemed to snap the ball before the clock expired and completed a 28 yard TD pass to senior WR David Moore, but the play was reversed and it was said that the play never happened. That 20-12 loss put the Rams at 0-3, and gave Fordham a deep hole from which they wouldn't recover.
The rest of the season Skelton would finish his senior campaign in a stellar way statistically, racking up 3,708 yards passing and notching 26 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions. Against Lehigh, Fordham lost a 35-28 shootout where Skelton was running for his life most of the game: Matt Cohen and the Lehigh defense registered nine sacks. Considering that sort of pressure, though, Skelton's 386 yard, 3 TD/2 interception performance seems even more extraordinary.
That wasn't the only pressure on Skelton either - NFL scouts started to be a regular occurrence at Rose Hill, too, ever since a New York Post article mentioned Skelton as a top-rated prospect at QB.
As a Lehigh fan, I definitely considered Skelton a great quarterback talent. When I first saw him, I thought he was a very raw guy that could be forced into making mistakes. By the end of his Fordham career, however, he became an extraordinarily accurate passer at the college level - and I think he's a talent that will be recalled for quite some time.
In my opinion, that he didn't dominate the Patriot League to a larger degree is mostly due to the fact that he didn't have the supporting cast that would have allowed him to capture multiple Patriot League titles. Their aggressive defense that was just effective enough in 2007 gave up too many points the next two years. Skelton also never had a dominating running game to take the pressure off the passing game: in 2009, the Rams only averaged 151 rushing yards a game. Amazingly, he really also did much of his damage on Rose Hill without a dominating go-to guy receiving, either.
But at the same time, he wasn't so talented that he could really lift his entire team on his back to will them to victory, either. He did have some real spectacular moments for sure, but one might argue that a better player would lift Fordham to something better than 3-8 and 5-6 records his last two seasons - that maybe his presence could have lifted them to even more wins. And a lot of his great statistics came because Fordham was behind in games, and they had to rely on Skelton to play catch-up.
In any event, once the regular season ended, Skelton's buzz went from his regular season stats to the East-West Shrine game. Like any player who didn't play for a .500 team in the Big Ten or Conference USA, Skelton - incredibly - was dinged for his "work ethic", that he "didn't commit himself completely to the weight room" and "lazy feet" and "inaccurate passes" in the practices before the Shrine Game. It's hard to judge these types of comments: are they simply chaff to get teams like the Oakland Raiders to not pursue these quarterbacks? Or do they really believe what they're writing? Personally, I never had the impression that Skelton as a player had anything but a good work ethic, so the comments just seemed like part of the game to downplay his talent and to steal him in the draft.
Skelton made a good impression at the Shrine Game by many accounts, though in this piece it was clear that he needed to "justify his existence" at the Shrine game to be an NFL draft pick. “It was a good game, a good week overall for me, being an [FCS] guy I had to explain to them who I was and stuff, but to get to throw with Big 10 receivers, ACC guys, SEC guys and stuff,it was a good experience,” he said. “It definitely elevated my confidence to kind of prepare me for what I’m expecting in the NFL.”
One of my pet peeves when the NFL draft folks descend on an FCS prospect is the fantasy that FCS players do well "at their level" but aren't as good as FBS players since they've played "at a higher level". That's just baloney - as if Big 10 teams are going up against teams packed with all-stars every week, and FCS teams are going up against pickup games in the quad or something. The truth is, you don't know how any college player is going to do at "the next level" - the NFL level. (Ask Huey Richardson or Mike Mamula.)
When it comes to the scouts, this piece probably details his strengths and weaknesses in the way that NFL scouts might look at him:
Positives: Idea size for the QB position. Stands tall in the pocket. Good at moving through his progressions. Throws deep ball with good trajectories so that it doesn't hang up too long. Moves well for his size and can get first downs with his legs and win at the line of scrimmage on sneaks.Two-year captain and a vocal leader on the field.
Negatives: Never seems to let it fly on the deep ball and opts for touch when some zip would be required. Sometimes relies on his arm strength too much when he throws from his back foot and off balance. Passes will flutter from time to time. Needs to work on play action and taking snaps on passing plays from under center. Needs to learn to look off the safety since he had trouble with safeties baiting him.
His physical gifts are without question. I've observed Skelton make some really incredible individual plays - his deep passes on the move, with amazing amounts of arm strength, hitting the guys on the deep post play. They're plays that you can't teach - and rare plays, too, in the Patriot League. In addition, he won't be a guy that's easily rattled. Even through a dizzying array of blitzes by teams to close the season, Skelton still had very good accuracy on his passes.
(Don't believe me? Check out the highlight video:)
Some of the things that are listed as negatives - needing to look off the safety, say, or play action and the like - are definitely things that are teachable, and the John Skelton I've seen I don't think will have any problems picking up those things.
Is Skelton NFL-ready out of the box? He has to clean up some rookie issues, sure. He'll be downgraded by some folks because they'll note that not a few his three-plus-TD games came against the Georgetown's, Cornell's, and Marist's of the world. But I feel that had a lot more to do about Skelton's supporting cast than his abilities. If he had an Andre Roberts and a Vladimir Ducasse on his team - two other FCS players that could hear their names called on draft day - Fordham would be celebrating their third-straight Patriot League title and their playoff wins over UNH and Southern Illinois. But things don't always play out that way, especially in the world of FCS football.
Is he ready to step in his rookie year and be the next Dan Marino? I don't think so; and oh by the way, very few quarterbacks are. (Tony Romo wasn't.) But I think in the right situation, Skelton could be a player that can make the NFL a career - or more than just a career.
It seems like most of the NFL teams agree with me, since it seems like at least five teams have confirmed that they've had Skelton in for private workouts, including the Philadelphia Eagles. One site has Skelton as the fifth-best FCS prospect in this year's draft - but I think he may be the first FCS player taken simply because he has a chance to be ready right away in the most sought-after position on any football team. Folks are more willing to take a chance on QB than any other position.
That could put him as a Day One draftee - as incredible as it may seem to observers who follow FCS football. I think he'll be the first FCS player taken - maybe even on the first day.