The most amazing thing Matt Skura might’ve done in his football career is get to practice.
One fall morning his sophomore year at Duke, Skura awoke to a text from his academic adviser. It was 6:50 — early, but also late. Very late. The other offensive linemen had gotten up almost an hour earlier. There was a mandatory team meeting at 7:10.
Teammates had long since arrived at the Blue Devils’ training facility to get taped up and have their braces secured. Usually, if there was a no-show lineman in the locker room around 6:30, 6:35, someone would check in. Not this day. And so Skura, who would build an unlikely NFL career in Baltimore around execution as persistent as the buzz of the alarm he’d forgotten to set, whose work ethic would carry him from undrafted Ravens rookie to a place among the NFL’s top centers but was now propelling him out of bed as fast as humanly possible, set out on a race against the clock.
Skura roused his roommate, a fellow lineman. He grabbed his phone. Then he started to run ... in flip-flops ... across Duke’s possibly rainy, definitely wet campus. After a while, having ditched the footwear, he sped down a steep hill near the facility barefoot. Then he got himself taped up, had his braces secured, threw his practice jersey and pants on. When the meeting started, Skura was present and accounted for. He was also sweating heavily.
“That might have been his greatest college feat,” said former Duke and current Green Bay Packers guard Lucas Patrick, a close friend, who estimated it was about a 20-minute walk from Skura’s bedroom to the Duke locker room. Somehow, he’d needed even less than that to get ready. “To this day, there’s still stories told about that and how he did it and still had a good practice.”
The surprise was not that Skura ended up in the right place at the right time; it was in the path he had taken there. His greatest accomplishments have come from doing the unexceptional in some of the most exceptional ways. From his Iron Man-like snap streak to his breakfast routine to his offseason workouts, there is maybe no Ravens player whose commitment to consistency exceeds what is asked of him. Which is a lot.
When the Ravens (3-2) take the M&T Bank Stadium field Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals (0-5), Skura will be the fulcrum of one of the NFL’s top-rated lines, making “90% of the calls” before the snap, veteran lineman James Hurst said. He will deliver shotgun snap after shotgun snap to quarterback Lamar Jackson, who almost never goes under center. He will pull and scrape and push around defenders for the Ravens’ No. 2 rushing attack. And he will never leave the field on offense, because that’s something Skura stopped doing a long time ago.
“He’s the starting center, and he’s playing like a starting center,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said last week. “He’s establishing himself as a starter in there, and he’s done a good job of it. And yet, as well as he’s playing, he can certainly play better, whether it’s a little footwork thing here or there. That’s the type of stuff that he’s chasing perfection [with].”
Friends and teammates say Skura approaches life and football with almost surgical precision, which makes sense. Skura’s father, Doug, is an orthopedic surgeon in Ohio, where Matt went to high school. His brother Brian is in an orthopedic surgery residency.
When Matt and his two brothers were growing up, first in Pittsburgh and then in Columbus, they got to watch their father perform surgery a couple of times. Doug Skura would go to work early in the morning and return late at night, and over the years his son internalized those virtues, his diligence and his devotion. Doug’s profession made him wary at first of Matt’s burgeoning football career. Then Skura got an offer from Duke, where coach David Cutcliffe preached a message of accountability that reminded him in many ways of his father’s.
From 2013 to 2015, he started every game at center for a Blue Devils team that reached the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game for the first time in program history and averaged nine victories per season. Skura was named All-ACC as a junior, then an All-American as a senior.
“I’ve been in games where your center is freaking out and there’s a double-A-gap blitz coming up with linebackers, and he’s spazzing out, not knowing what to do. And nothing successful can come from that,” said former Duke guard Dave Harding, a starter on the Blue Devils’ 2013 ACC Coastal Division champion team and now the lead analyst for the program’s radio broadcast. “But Matt always had his head in the game and was just like, ‘OK.’ And when you talk to him, you kind of get the sense of like, ‘All right, we’ve got two linebackers coming up the A-gap here. Make sure you block it.’ And he does.”
Eight centers were taken in the 2016 NFL draft, but not Skura. He was smart, of course, but his power and quickness were lacking. The Ravens signed him as an undrafted free agent, cut him before the season started, then re-signed him to their practice squad. A year later, same deal: good enough for the practice squad, not good enough to make any season-opening 53-man roster. He didn’t appear in an NFL game until Week 3 of the 2017 season, starting at right guard after Marshal Yanda’s season-ending ankle injury.
“He made the most of it. And that's what you've got to do,” Yanda said. “When I was a young player, J.O. [Jonathan Ogden] got hurt, and I got my opportunity to play when I was a young player. And you just have to make the most of your opportunities when you get it.”
Skura, the surgeon’s son, took a scalpel to his game in the offseason. He was not the kind of lineman who struggled to lose weight, and that was a problem. He left Duke weighing in at 6 feet 4, 305 pounds. So he ate a lot and worked out constantly. “It sucked, but it was something that I had to do,” said Skura, who’s now between 315 and 320 pounds.
For about one month every offseason, three to four times a week, he would work out twice a day. Skura’s upper body had always been strong — he did 27 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press at the scouting combine — but greater power came from below. He could not skimp on leg day. He did single-leg squats and balance pod squats, trap bar deadlifts and sled pushes. If it’d help him hold up against 340-pound behemoths inside, he did it.
He held up, all right. In his first season back at center, Skura last year led the NFL in offensive snaps (1,189), a 100% participation rate. He was a dedicated student growing up, but he’d even allow himself the occasional mental-health day.
Now he craved consistency. There was comfort in routine. He and his wife, Emma, are childhood sweethearts. He’s had the same breakfast at the Ravens facility since his rookie year: three mini-waffles, eggs with spinach and cheese, and a bowl of oatmeal with strawberries and raspberries. At Duke, during the season, he relished in the offensive line’s “Thick Thursdays,” a weekly hangout at a local fast-food joint where they’d take down a dessert or two.
“He’s very consistent in everything that he does as a player, as a teammate, as a friend,” Ravens right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said. “I would definitely say he’s somebody I look forward to playing with on Sundays and here at practice.”
“He’d never get too high, never get too low,” said Patrick, his old Duke teammate. “I mean, I think he’s the prototypical type of guy you’d want leading your O-line in the middle.”
But in conversations with Skura this past offseason, Harding said he detected “an added sense of urgency” in his friend’s approach. The Ravens’ line had been raided in their playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, Skura didn’t have a long-term contract, and he had a growing family to provide for. (In March 2018, Emma gave birth to the couple’s first child, a daughter named Emerson.)
“You could tell that Matt had thought about what he needed to do,” Harding said, and what Skura needed to do was not be content. He watched other centers. He studied his own tape. If he wanted his play to improve, he needed to address each granular component of it, from his understanding of back blocks to his aggressiveness on pass plays to how he would reach for defenders.
Through five games in which he hasn’t missed an offensive snap, Skura’s graded out higher than even some of the stars he emulates, rated the No. 5 overall center by Pro Football Focus. In pass protection, he has allowed just one sack and two hurries. Until this week, the Ravens led the NFL in yards per carry. Their presnap operations have all but tuned out the cacophony inside Arrowhead Stadium and Heinz Field.
“Coming into this season, I just knew I wanted to perfect the techniques and the things I did last year, take all the experiences I had and build on it,” Skura said.
“Very rarely is he wrong,” Brown said. “That’s the truth, man.”
One of Skura’s favorite plays from this year came in the Week 3 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. In the third quarter, Skura pulled right on an outside-zone run for Mark Ingram II. He had expected to maybe encounter a defensive lineman at the line of scrimmage or a linebacker at the second level. That was what he had worked for.
Instead, Skura found a cornerback. He tossed him aside like a pair of flip-flops, and Ingram wasn’t touched until the last steps of his 19-yard touchdown. It was surgical.
“You know you’re never going to be perfect, but if you just work day in and day out, you’re going to get as close as possible, and that’s what he’s done,” Hurst said. “It seems like every year, he’s just getting better and better and better.”