Better knowledge helping Miles Boykin catch on as Notre Dame's No. 1 wide receiver

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Miles Boykin’s chance to impress his new position coach had finally come.

For the first time since his freshman season, Boykin was no longer dealing with a broken middle finger on his right hand. He entered the first spring practice of 2017 looking to show new wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander his skill set.

Then Boykin dropped the first pass that came his way. The ball slipped right through his fingers and hit him in the face mask.

“Coach was (probably) like, ‘I don’t know what I’m getting myself into. This kid can’t play. He can’t catch.’” Boykin recalled. “I was like, ‘I promise I can catch the ball.’ I just had to relearn how to catch it.”

The 6-foot-4, 228-pound Boykin can laugh about it now. After hauling in 19 passes in the last two games, no one’s doubting the senior wide receiver’s ability to catch a football.

But he’s here to remind anyone who asks how difficult it was to deal with a broken finger.

“They take forever to heal too,” Boykin said. “You can play with it. It just sucked. These quarterbacks, they throw so hard. You can’t just drop it and say, ‘Coach, my finger hurts.’ That doesn’t work.”

The trajectory of Boykin’s career can be drawn parallel with the health of his hands. Though that’s not the turning point Boykin picks. Instead, he identifies Alexander as the person who took his game to another level.

Boykin always had impressive physical traits, but the knowledge Alexander has given Boykin has translated into a better understanding of the game. After he caught 11 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown against Stanford, Boykin said he knew before the ball was snapped when it would be coming his way. That’s because Boykin understands both what the defense wants to do with its coverage and what the quarterback is reading.

Boykin became a student of the game that same spring last year when he dropped the first pass thrown to him. Before that, Boykin said he didn’t know much about coverages.

“It was when coach Alexander got here, he was the one who really talked to us a lot about coverages and what that means,” Boykin said. “What the quarterback is reading. OK, he’s going to go here with the ball if he sees this. Things like that. When coach Alexander got here, it was night and day between what I was learning in terms of mastering the game of football.”

Diligent film study led to Boykin knowing in the third quarter of Notre Dame’s 45-23 victory over Virginia Tech that he was left wide open when quarterback Ian Book scrambled to his left on a third-and-8 in the third quarter. Boykin caught the pass 13 yards down the field and took care of the rest for a 40-yard touchdown.

“They were playing a lot of cover zero and a lot of man, so there was nobody over there obviously,” Boykin said. “If my man leaves me, then there’s no one around there.”

It doesn’t take a football mastermind to know leaving Boykin wide open isn’t a good idea.

Putting up numbers

Whatever doubts Alexander may have had in the spring of 2017 have long been washed away.

In August, Alexander predicted quite a bit of what we’ve seen from Boykin this season.

“He’s not going to let a smaller defender rattle him or out-technique him,” Alexander said, “He is going to be physical and dominant. He’s going to force those guys to be their best every rep.”

Even at their best, some cornerbacks can’t stop Boykin. He’s too big. He’s too strong. He’s even faster than you’d think.

“For his size, he’s really quick and he’s deceptively fast,” Alexander said. “That’s what surprises defenders. Being as tall as he is, he has a really good reception area.”

The protective padding Boykin has been wearing around his midsection only adds to the deception. He was given the padding by the training staff to cover up a minor rib injury he suffered in the Stanford game.

Naturally, he looks thicker and slower, even if he isn’t.

“It’s ugly and I feel like a pocket-passing quarterback,” Boykin joked. “I definitely don’t like wearing it … I can’t stand it, but I have to listen to the training staff.”

The padding hasn’t impeded his production. His 19 catches against Stanford and Virginia Tech are the most in a two-game stretch by a Notre Dame wide receiver since Michael Floyd in 2011. Boykin, who didn’t grow up a Notre Dame fan, said he didn’t know much about Floyd before joining the Irish.

Now he’s well aware of the compliment it is to be mentioned in the same sentence as Notre Dame’s program record holder in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown receptions.

“It’s pretty humbling because you know how big, fast, physical he was,” Boykin said. “He was a truly great receiver.”

Boykin can knock on the door of greatness if he keeps putting together 100-yard games. He’s already notched three this season on his way to leading the Irish in receptions (28) receiving yards (428) and receiving touchdowns (3).

Just don’t expect Boykin to keep track of his 100-yard performances.

“It’s not about the stats,” Boykin said. “My dream was just playing on a big stage here. My dream was playing against Stanford. My dream was playing against Virginia Tech. Just to even be in those moments and being leaned on like that, it doesn’t have anything to do about the stats. It has to do more with me just being a part of this.”

Boykin’s putting up numbers that he rarely reached in high school. His career-high in catches (11) for New Lenox (Ill.) Providence Catholic came in his senior season against Minooka. He didn’t catch more than eight passes in any other game that season. He found the end zone plenty though with 19 touchdown catches in 11 games.

The only numbers Boykin really concerns himself with are how many of his targets turn into catches. According to Notre Dame’s play-by-play statistics, Boykin has been targeted 42 times this season, meaning he’s caught two-thirds of the passes thrown his way. But those targets also include passes thrown away by the quarterback if Boykin was the nearest receiver.

For instance, Boykin was given a target on the second Notre Dame drive in the Virginia Tech game when he ran a comeback route and Book threw the ball more than 10 yards away into the end zone as the result of a miscommunication.

“You can’t have 10 balls come your way and catch two or three. That’s not our standard,” Boykin said. “My standard is to catch anything I can. Anything that’s in my direction, I have to catch. It doesn’t matter how many yards I have. If I have to run 10 drive routes for two yards, then I need all of those.”

Same page with Book

There haven’t been many miscommunications between Boykin and Book.

The two worked together as backups for the majority of last season and connected for the biggest play of the season to beat LSU in the Citrus Bowl. They even sit next to each other on the bus for game weekends.

After the Virginia Tech game, Boykin said Book apologized for slightly underthrowing a pass that resulted in a 20-yard gain in the fourth quarter. Boykin adjusted to the throw and made the catch in front of Virginia Tech’s Jovonn Quillen look easy.

“’I’m sorry it was short, but I had to. I wasn’t going to overthrow you,’” Boykin said Book told him. Most of Book’s 10 incompletions against Virginia Tech were overthrows. “It was kind of funny just thinking about that. That’s the type of person he is. He always just wants to go out there and be perfect.”

Many of Boykin’s big moments have come with Book at quarterback, but he insists he hasn’t changed the way he played with Brandon Wimbush at quarterback. Boykin caught six passes for 119 yards from Wimbush against Ball State.

“As a receiver, we have to go out there and do the same job no matter who’s at quarterback,” Boykin said. “I have to run the right routes. I have to make Ian look perfect. I have to be in the right place at the right time.”

The next assignment comes Saturday against Pittsburgh (3-3). Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and his players have been asked all week about the potential of a trap game. Boykin shrugged off the idea. He knows the No. 5 Irish (6-0) have to match Pitt’s preparation.

“We understand that we’re going to get every team’s best,” Boykin said. “It doesn’t matter if we’re playing Ball State. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing Virginia Tech. We’re going to get every team’s best just because we’re at Notre Dame, especially when a team’s coming here. They haven’t been here in a while.”

Still, there should be opportunities for Boykin to break loose once again Saturday. The Panthers rank in the lower half of the FBS in pass efficiency defense. The last time Notre Dame played Pittsburgh, wide receiver Will Fuller torched the Panthers for 152 yards and three touchdowns in 2015. Pat Narduzzi, a former defensive coordinator at Michigan State, remains Pittsburgh’s head coach.

Boykin knows what to expect from Pittsburgh’s defense.

“We talked about Pitt’s head coach coming from Michigan State, so they run a lot of the same stuff that Michigan State ran: cover four, press man,” Boykin said. “When you’ve been in here for four years, you begin to see a lot of things over and over again.”

If Saturday plays out anything like Notre Dame’s last two games, the Panthers will see Boykin catches over and over again too.

Notre Dame wide receiver Miles Boykin (81) beats Virginia Tech’s Jovonn Quillen (26) for one of his eight catches in the Irish victory over the Hokies.