Walk up to Shayne Skov’s house at the manicured edges of downtown Berkeley — up the tree-lined path, through the wooden gate and past the white plastic patio table with the legs that won’t stay on — and you’ll enter the world of a 24-year-old on a lazy Saturday afternoon in February.
Though the kitchen table’s cluttered, the lights are dimmed and the TV shows a paused video game, lazy is the last thing you’d call Skov himself. Reading, video games and anime soak up his spare time — “I’m being pretty nerdy lately,” Skov joked — but he logs four to five hours a day running, lifting and getting soft tissue work as he counts the days until the next NFL season.
Minicamps start soon, and the former Stanford linebacker is getting ready to move down to Santa Clara, where he will go up against 89 other players for 53 roster spots with the San Francisco 49ers. After a year that saw him slide out of the draft and play for practice squads in San Francisco, Tampa Bay and San Francisco again, the one-time face of Nerd Nation is preparing for his second go around in the unforgiving NFL.
“It’s just a combination of patience but also an inner drive, a burning desire to play,” Skov said. “You’ve got to juggle those two sides of what’s going on internally.”
It’s just a combination of patience but also an inner drive, a burning desire to play.
In many ways, however, Skov’s first year of pro football was defined by factors beyond his control.
The challenges date back to his junior year at Stanford, when he tore his ACL and MCL and broke his tibia while making a tackle at Arizona. After undergoing three surgeries and missing the remainder of that season, Skov rehabbed, made it back to the field and progressed for two more years as a starter; as a fifth-year senior, he finished as the Cardinal’s leading tackler (with 109) and was named a second-team All-American.
But NFL scouts remained concerned that Skov’s knee would limit his speed. Those doubts were reinforced when he ran an underwhelming 5.11 seconds in the 40-yard dash in a workout, after he had missed the NFL Combine with a calf injury and Stanford’s pro day with a hamstring injury.
When Skov wasn’t drafted, he and his Stanford coaches were caught off guard.
“I was actually kind of shocked,” said Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson, a coach throughout Skov’s career. “He was such a good player for us, and performed at such a high level through his career here … I think the only thing that might not have been as strong was just his ability to flat-out run.”
On the draft’s final day, the newly minted free agent fielded calls from multiple teams, including two whose defensive coordinators had coached him in college, the 49ers (Vic Fangio) and the Oakland Raiders (Jason Tarver). Within two hours of the draft’s conclusion, Skov signed with San Francisco. But despite Skov’s familiarity with the coaching staff, the NFL wasn’t the same as college.
“You kind of learn the ins and outs going through your first training camp,” he said. “It’s definitely a different environment, the way guys go about their business, the relationship between players and coaches and just overall organizations.”
There was, of course, the business aspect as well.
When the 49ers lost two tight ends in its Week 2 game against Chicago, the team waived Skov, a practice squad player, to make room for a backup tight end. A week later, Skov was picked up by Tampa Bay for its practice squad; within four weeks, the Buccaneers released him; three weeks after that, the Niners — then short on linebackers — re-signed him.
“I think I saw that in Tampa and in San Francisco, the locker room isn’t the same guys that you had at the beginning of the season,” Skov said. “It’s just part of the game … you just learn to approach every day with the right work ethic, and be prepared to prove yourself.”
Skov is not the only recent Stanford alum to have learned that firsthand. During his short stint in Tampa, he stayed at the condo of wide receiver Chris Owusu, who was released by the Buccaneers the day before Skov signed with them. As a rookie out of Stanford two years earlier, Owusu had shuttled between three teams by Week 3.
Former Cardinal linebacker Chase Thomas had to fight his way into the league as well, playing for three teams as a rookie before joining the 49ers last offseason. Thomas and Skov sat together in meetings in San Francisco, and Thomas made the active roster for five games last season. To Skov, his example proves that the climb is possible.
So Skov continues to train, trying to become “the most well-rounded athlete possible” so that he can make the leap to an active roster. Fangio is out as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator, but Tarver has joined the staff to coach San Francisco’s linebackers, so Skov will still benefit from a coach who understands his abilities. Skov’s knee doesn’t bother him, and neither does the talk about his speed. And though that injury has almost certainly slowed Skov’s ascendance to the next level, the experience may also help him push through.
“That’s a tough league full of talented players, and the only way you’re going to make one of those teams is to take somebody else’s job,” Anderson said. “So I think having gone through a rigorous rehab process like that, where he’s fighting and battling to get back on the field, will help him in this situation where he’s fighting and battling to be able to continue to play football.”
When the season comes, the battle will only get tougher. That’s another difference that Skov has noticed between the NFL and college: There are no practice time limitations anymore.
Successful teams and successful players put in the hours.
“Successful teams and successful players put in the hours,” Skov said. “Guys take it to a whole another level, and the expectations increase.”
Soon, Skov’s days will begin with 6:30 a.m. lifts, breakfast and meetings. For now, though, he can mix in a few video games.