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After year battling injury, UND running back Luke Skokna feeling rejuvenated at spring ball

After suffering injury on the fifth practice of fall camp, Skokna spent nearly all of 2022 on the sideline.

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UND's Luke Skokna races down the sidelines for a 51 yard touchdown for the Fighting Hawks first touchdown against Drake in the Potato Bowl, Saturday, September 18, 2021. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS โ€” UND running back Luke Skokna knew playing at the University of Nebraska to open the 2022 season was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a chance to play in front of 85,000 at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.

But in the fifth practice of fall camp leading up to Nebraska, Skokna, who had been named to the Phil Steele 2022 all-Missouri Valley Football Conference team as a running back and returner, came down hard at practice and injured his shoulder and neck.

He never had the chance to see UND play the Cornhuskers in person.

"I was screaming at the TV back at home," Skokna said.

It was a long and challenging 2022 season for Skokna, who struggled to shake the injury and only played sparingly at the end of the season and finished the year with one carry.

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After not practicing nearly all of 2022, the first few spring ball practices have served as a reminder of why Skokna was once an integral part of the Fighting Hawks offense.

"Lot of adversity," Skokna said. "I went almost a year and couldn't be healthy. It's tough. It's a game you love.

"What's cool about football and why it's the ultimate team sport is everyone has a role. Unfortunately, I was injured and my role at the time was to be a good teammate, so whatever I could do to bring juice to the team and stay positive."

There were moments when he questioned his future in football.

"I didn't know if this sport was for me," Skokna said. "I went a while without it, but this game means too much to me."

So Skokna is looking at bouncing back in 2023 as a fifth-year senior. The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Hinsdale, Ill., native has more than 740 career rushing yards and seven touchdowns. He's been especially useful as a pass catcher out of the backfield with 333 career receiving yards.

Between punt and kick return yards, Skokna has 800 in his Fighting Hawks career.

But while Skokna struggled to recover from injury in 2022, UND's running backs flourished. Isaiah Smith became a dual-threat running back (447 rushing yards, 306 receiving yards), while Red Wilson emerged as a flexible option in the run and pass game. Although workhorse running back Tyler Hoosman has graduated, UND returns Smith and Wilson in 2023.

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UND has also been actively recruiting a replacement for Hoosman from the transfer portal.

"We have so much talent on offense," Skokna said. "It's the most since I've been here. I want us to establish ourselves as the best backfield in the FCS. You're going to have to be ready when your number is called."

Although the depth at running back may make Skokna's 2023 role unclear, he's ready to do whatever asked by UND offensive coordinator Danny Freund, who has a reputation for a diverse, imaginative offense.

"Coach Freund is really creative," Skokna said. "I could play running back, slot, help in the return game. Wherever they need me, I just want to play ball โ€” plain and simple."

Skokna's path back to becoming an offensive weapon for UND is off to a strong start as spring ball plays out at the Fritz Pollard Jr. Athletic Center.

"To be honest, (the injury) was a blessing in disguise," Skokna said. "I pretty much had a year off from the game of football and contact. My legs feel the best they've felt. I had the time to work on what I needed to work on in terms of lower body. I feel fast. It's the strongest, fastest and most confident I've ever been. It's my fifth year, and I'm not an 18-19-year-old kid anymore."

Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019 and 2022.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, tmiller@gfherald.com or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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