Photo by Rick Kimball
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In the final three games of last season, sophomore receiver Miles Boykin began to make the first major advancements in his career. Unfortunately, it was in a bittersweet manner.
He played a career high 26 snaps on offense versus Army, snared his first touchdown pass (18 yards) to give Notre Dame a 24-7 lead versus Virginia Tech in an eventual loss, and played 24 snaps again versus USC in a 45-27 defeat that ended a miserable 4-8 campaign.
Walking off the field at USC is when the finality of a nightmare season hit Boykin and so many teammates.
“That was an embarrassing game,” Boykin said. “We played hard, but that’s not what it’s about here. I want to win every game I play in. The campus just isn’t the same when Notre Dame football isn’t winning. It’s really sad, it’s really sorry. It’s hard talking about it even right now … just knowing something like that can never happen here again.
“I had to look inside of myself and realize I can do better than this, I am better than this and I’m not going to demand anything less of myself. I had to get that mind-set ready.”
Through the first half of spring drills, the 6-4, 225-pound Boykin has been conspicuous with his improvement and production. During the March 31 practice that was open to the media, he was consistently reliable in the pass routes and at finishing plays, especially in the red zone.
In the more limited viewing time this Wednesday, he snared a bullet from quarterback Brandon Wimbush on a slant and displayed what is often referred to as his deceptive speed while pulling away from defenders on what in game-like situations might have been a 70-yard score. His reps with the first unit keep rising because of better consistency at tracking and catching the ball, and more physicality with his frame.
“He’s very sneaky, he eats up a lot of ground with those long strides and before you know it he’s running past people,” said head coach Brian Kelly after Wednesday’s practice.
Because of his rangy frame, Boykin often has been projected as a future tight end prospect. That talk has been tabled.
“I’m one of those players you have to see in person before you believe my speed,” Boykin told Blueandgold.com shortly after he signed with the Fighting Irish in February 2015. “I don’t look too fast on the film … Coaches have told me that when they came to my school to see me run routes, at the end they’d see me as a receiver and not a tight end.”
Redshirted as a freshman in 2015, Boykin’s major asset was his ability to shield defenders with his frame, much like boxing out in basketball, the sport he was recruited to play by local schools such as DePaul after already making All-Chicago Catholic League as a sophomore at Providence Catholic. His main concentration at Notre Dame has included developing separation skills.
“You don’t necessarily learn a lot in high school because there is always separation, but once you get here it’s a little bit tougher,” said Boykin, who has worn No. 81 since high school when older brother George — who wore the same number and is working on his commercial pilot license —saw his football career end after suffering a brain contusion.
Last year, Boykin’s sophomore classmates Equanimeous St. Brown (58 catches, 16.6 yards per catch, nine touchdowns), CJ Sanders (24 catches and two scores, plus two more kick returns for scores) and Chris Finke (10 catches, including TDs his final two games) all made a bigger splash than Boykin, whose six catches netted 81 yards.
Because there are no senior receivers on the spring roster — Corey Holmes is transferring for his final two seasons of eligibility after graduating this summer — the quartet of rising juniors join rising sophomores Kevin Stepherson (25 catches, 18.5 yards per catch and five scores last year) Chase Claypool (five catches, 81 yards) and Javon McKinley (surgery in November for a fractured fibula) to comprise the wideout corps.
“When we were freshmen and had a bad practice, Coach wasn’t really blaming it on the younger players,” Boykin said. “He was blaming it on the older players to set a tempo. That’s huge for us now. Get here early and be here mentally and physically.”
Under first-year strength and conditioning coach Matt Balis, the energy level has elevated appreciably.
“He’s always ready,” Boykin said. “It doesn’t matter what time in the morning it is, how late it is, he’s always ready. I think he’s starting to wear off on us now. I’m always ready to do something. Everything is a competition. That’s what we realize and that’s what we’re trying to make everything this year, whether it’s in the weight room or the classroom, and obviously on the field.”
St. Brown is easily the standout among the receivers after last season, but Kelly is anticipating more spreading of the wealth, including with the tight ends, under new coordinator/tight ends coach Chip Long.
“You’re going to see a better supporting cast across the board, which is going to give us much more balance — and more importantly it’s going to give us much more consistency from an offensive standpoint,” Kelly said.
Boykin has been stationed mainly at the boundary (W), where St. Brown starred in 2016. With potentially a little more tempo under Long, where one’s position is listed is not as pertinent as understanding the overall big picture.
“Anybody can play anywhere — slot , to the field, to the boundary,” Boykin said. “The biggest thing is just learning the offense so they can play you anywhere. … A lot of blocking, that’s something we’re really trying to harp on too. Be more physical at the point of attack, and going up and getting the ball.”
With Boykin, St. Brown, Claypool and tight ends Alize Jones, Durham Smythe, Nic Weishar and early entrant Brock Wright all at least 6-4, Notre Dame will have its tallest pass-catching corps ever, complemented by the shiftiness/speed of players such as Stepherson, Sanders and Finke.
“We all complement each other so well,” Boykin said. “That’s something that is going to stand out this season.
“I like to think I’m a combination of all of them, right?” he added with a laugh.
That indeed would be a step in the right direction, and Miles ahead of where he was the past two seasons.
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