Covering Notre Dame WR Miles Boykin is no easy task

Tyler James

Julian Love thought he knew all the ways Miles Boykin could beat him.

Going up against the 6-foot-4, 228-pound wide receiver on a daily basis, the junior cornerback developed a pretty good understanding of what Boykin does best.

But that list, apparently, keeps get longer.

Previously on fade routes, Love knew the ball would be thrown deep or to Boykin’s back shoulder. As quarterback Brandon Wimbush and Boykin have established more chemistry, a third option has become available.

“They developed this thing where it’s either deep, back shoulder or just throw it up,” Love said. “Now I have to focus on in front of him, behind him and everywhere over top. That’s an element that they’re utilizing to the maximum right now.”

On one route alone, Boykin can beat his defender in three different ways. The newest progression — utilizing his height — may be the most difficult to stop.

“Brandon can just be calm in the pocket and throw it up,” Love said. “Miles has a 40-inch vert and he’s 6-4. That’s hard to stop. That’s probably the most challenging, just going up with him. It really forces me to get into their bodies before they can jump.”

That’s one way to try to defend him. Love has the luxury of at least having countless reps against Boykin to anticipate his next move. Michigan cornerbacks Lavert Hill and David Long will be tasked with covering Boykin for the first time. Like Love — all three are 5-11.

Boykin’s size, and the athleticism he brings with it, have always given him a high ceiling as a wide receiver. That’s why former Notre Dame cornerback Stan Smagala called up his former teammate, Todd Lyght, back in 2012 to tell him about Boykin. Smagala’s daughters attended the same school as Boykin — Providence Catholic in New Lenox, Ill. — and he quickly recognized Boykin’s potential.

“Miles is by far the best athlete that I’ve seen on a high school football field,” Smagala said. “I don’t watch too much football, but he was head and shoulders better than everybody on the football field at Providence.”

Smagala should know talent. He had to cover the likes of Andre Rison and Michael Irvin during his Notre Dame career. He just couldn’t figure out why Providence Catholic’s coaching staff didn’t let Boykin return punts and kicks and throw him the ball more often.

“He was by far the best athlete out there,” Smagala said. “They should be giving him the ball non-stop. I think Miles was so talented that it came pretty easy for him.”

At the time, Lyght was a defensive secondary intern at Oregon. But the Irish became aware of Boykin as well. He gave head coach Brian Kelly and then-offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock his verbal commitment in 2014.

Boykin has come a long way since then. The 55-yard, acrobatic touchdown catch against LSU in January’s Citrus Bowl has been the highlight of Boykin’s career. If he’s as tough to cover in games as he’s been in practice, Boykin’s poised for a big senior season.

“In terms of competitive battles, Miles Boykin’s been a different player since he caught the game-winning touchdown against LSU,” said Lyght, who has coached defensive backs at Notre Dame since 2015.

Love agrees. He believes Boykin’s development is the next step in Notre Dame’s offense.

“It was easier to guard him in the past couple years, because I knew what they were expecting,” Love said. “I knew where they were going to put the ball.

“He has size. He has all the same attributes he had, but now they’re developing and making it more dynamic for him. That’s what you have to do. You have to utilize the players.”

Shaun Crawford, the eldest and shortest cornerback on Notre Dame’s roster, doesn’t have a lot of options when trying to cover Boykin. The 5-foot-9, 181-pound senior will try to play soft coverage on him to keep Boykin in front of him. Even then, Crawford said, Boykin can still beat you with a deep ball.

The other strategy? It involves a little bit of good fortune.

“Sometimes you have to just play tight coverage and hope for a bad throw,” Crawford said. “You can play through the hands, put a hand in his face, you can jump as high as him. It doesn’t matter. He has really strong hands. He’s big, so he’s going to go get the ball.”

Smagala doesn’t have much advice either. He has a hard time imagining what he would have done to defend Boykin. Good luck, opposing cornerbacks.

“What are you going to do? I’m 5-10,” Smagala said. “Hopefully you use the sideline as another defenseman to get him out of there.

“He’s a different kind of player. He’s athletic. I watched one game of him playing basketball. He’s just an incredible athlete.

“I’m really glad he got an opportunity. He’s been one of those players that was just waiting in the wings. He got his opportunity, and now I think he’s going to be the man.”

Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin (81) makes a one-handed catch on a touchdown reception to put Notre Dame ahead in the final moments of the Citrus Bowl against LSU, Jan. 1 at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.