Matt Skura starts life as a Baltimore sports figure with two strikes against him.
First off, the Ravens right guard grew up rooting for the Pittsburgh Steelers. As a husky kid learning to love football in Western Pennsylvania and later Ohio, he’d lug the ball around pretending to be Jerome Bettis. Later, he admired Troy Polamalu and Alan Faneca. The guys in purple and black were the enemies.
Then he went to Duke. No, Blue Devils football isn’t exactly Krzyzewskiville when it comes to inspiring loathing. And Skura wasn’t even a fan of the place before he accepted a scholarship. Still, Duke is Duke — the land of J.J. Redick and high self-regard.
Set those associations aside, however, and the 24-year-old Skura is one of the true underdog-made-good stories on the 2017 Ravens.
He was an All-American center at Duke who nonetheless went undrafted and spent all of last season on the Ravens’ practice squad, never sniffing action on a Sunday. He came in to training camp likely headed for the same place this year.
But a strange series of events — from John Urschel’s abrupt retirement to Marshal Yanda’s season-ending injury — cleared a path for him. Halfway through his second season, Skura is a starting NFL guard with a chance to secure his long-term professional future if he handles the job adroitly.
“I think right now, I’m just proving I can be a versatile player,” he said. “Moving forward, coach [John Harbaugh] always says every week, ‘Make a name for yourself!’ And that’s what I’m trying to do. As an undrafted guy, I think I have a little more to prove.”
He missed Weeks 6 and 7 with a sprained MCL, but when he returned to start last week against the Miami Dolphins, the Ravens offensive line immediately played better than it had with rookie Jermaine Eluemunor at right guard. The Ravens have solid starters at both tackle spots in Ronnie Stanley and Austin Howard and a breakout performer at center in Ryan Jensen. So if Skura can play competently filling in for Yanda, the line would be in decent shape.
Harbaugh has been one of Skura’s most persistent advocates. He talked him up before training camp, when few fans and analysts had given him much thought.
“Great guy, works hard, and I thought he did a really good job last week, in terms of coming back from the knee [injury],” Harbaugh said Wednesday. “I was really impressed with the way he played, but he has to keep getting better and keep improving. He’s come a long way, and I’m sure he’d tell you he has a ways to go. We’re happy with him.”
The ligament sprain seemed to come at the worst possible time for Skura, who had pushed his way into a featured role after Yanda’s injury in Week 2. If Eluemunor had played well the two weeks he was out, he might have been out of luck again.
“It was frustrating for sure. The way I got hit, it was like I barely got nicked,” Skura said. “You run through all the situations in your head and say, ‘Man, if I could have just blocked it a little differently …’ But you’ve got to get over it quickly.”
Eluemunor struggled, and Skura regained the job as soon as he was ready.
“We found out about his toughness because he had a pretty good injury,” said Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. “And then he got himself ready to go in a couple weeks. He’s a consistent player, he’s smart and he’s tough. So those are good qualities to have in an offensive lineman.”
Veteran teammates have been impressed with Skura’s efforts to step into the wide breach left by Yanda’s injury.
“He’s that guy who’s coming in early, staying late, doing the things a young guy should do,” said tackle Austin Howard, who plays beside Skura on the right side of the line. “You don’t have to question what he’s doing in the weight room, in the meeting room, even with his note taking. I sit next to him in the meeting room and I see his notes. He’s very diligent in everything he does.”
Outside assessments of Skura’s play have been more mixed. Pro Football Focus, for example, has graded him slightly below Eluemunor for the season and lists both among the least effective guards in the league.
By that reckoning, the dropoff from Yanda, a perennial Pro Bowl selection, has been severe.
Before the 2016 draft, NFL scouts praised Skura’s long arms and aptitude for the game but questioned his raw athletic ability and the quality of defenders he blocked in the ACC. He went undrafted despite the fact some analysts assigned him a sixth- or seventh-round grade.
Skura will be the first to say he’s no Yanda. Like many of the team’s young linemen, his most fervent wish is to bear some resemblance to No. 73 on the field.
“Marshal is someone I always look up to,” he said. “His footwork is incredible, his awareness and his ability to change direction. It’s just something I want to emulate. I pretty much want to be like Marshal in both the pass game and the run game.”
Though he grew used to snapping the ball as a college center, he’s digging his NFL role, especially when he gets to pull around and collide with defenders at top speed.
Skura is used to succeeding when no one expects much from him. He was a good high school player in football-mad Columbus. But the hometown Ohio State Buckeyes weren’t beating down his door.
Duke hadn’t played in a bowl game for almost 20 years when Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe came calling. Like many people, Skura reflexively rooted against Duke basketball. Most recently, he’d cringed when the Blue Devils held off Butler in the 2010 NCAA Championship game.
But it was funny — Skura’s girlfriend (now wife), Emma Ellis, had spent part of her childhood in North Carolina, and just a few weeks before one of Cutcliffe’s assistants contacted him, she teasingly gave him a Duke football shirt.
“I didn’t even want to wear it,” he said.
The lady knew best.
Once he got to Durham, Skura became a key figure in the rise of the Duke program. The Blue Devils made bowl games each of the four years he played, and he started all 40 games at center over his last three seasons, peaking as a second-team All-American choice by USA Today in 2015.
“He’s what we’re trying to build this program around,” Cutcliffe told ESPN.com in 2014. “He gets it.”
Skura’s a steady guy. He and Ellis stayed together throughout college, and when it was time to get married last year, he camped out for three nights to secure a coveted wedding slot at Duke Chapel.
He knows he’s now making his living in a land of Duke haters. So he dredged up a touch of Blue Devil snark when describing what he says to Maryland basketball fans who get on him.
“I’ll be wearing a Duke shirt and I’ll get some funny comments,” he said. “But I like it. They talk about the rivalry, and I’m not too versed in it, but I just thought Duke always had won those games. So there wasn’t much rivalry anyway. That’s what I usually tell people.”
Regarding his former Steelers fandom, Skura is eager for the Ravens’ trip to Heinz Field in December. He played there in college, which he said was good because he worked through any lingering childhood awe.
When he signed with the Ravens, some family members looked askance at trading in their black and gold for purple. But Skura expects a robust contingent to show up for him in Pittsburgh.
He’s far more focused on rewarding the Ravens’ faith in him and proving he’s a man to be depended on in the NFL.
“There’s still a lot to be worked on,” he said. “A lot left to achieve.”