“I definitely want to define my legacy more than just having one catch. I want to be known for more than that.”
Senior Notre Dame wide receiver Miles Boykin set a high bar for himself, considering the play he refers to sealed one of the most dramatic Notre Dame victories in recent memory.
Competing in the first bowl game of his career, Boykin logged then-career highs in yardage and total receptions during the 2018 Citrus Bowl versus LSU. The statline alone made the game a defining point in Boykin’s time with the Irish, but what earned him the bowl’s MVP award was “The Catch”. With less than two minutes remaining and his team trailing by three points, the 6-4 receiver reeled in an Ian Book pass with one hand, broke multiple tackles and took it 55 yards down the sideline for the game-winning score.
“That’s definitely something that’s pretty unique and something that’s going to live on at Notre Dame,” Boykin said. “I’m proud that I could do that.”
Leading up the Citrus Bowl, the Irish depth chart had only four or five receivers in rotation. Most offensive sets call for three wideouts, translating to a lot of snaps for Boykin.
“That week of practice was a tough week of practice, probably one of the tougher ones I’ve had since I was here. We’re constantly gassed and Coach is telling us we’ll get our legs back later in the week. It’s two days before the game and I’m thinking, ‘I still don’t have my legs back yet.’ I don’t know what happened, but the day before I started feeling a little bit better. By game time I felt as fresh as possible. I didn’t know how that’s possible for how many reps we had taken that week during practice.”
The challenge of peaking at the right time is one that faces the Irish again this season as they look to build upon the big moments of last year and make some new highlights along the way.
“It’s huge. Just having the momentum going into spring ball and going into the season. We have a 10-win season, and obviously that’s a very good season. But we don’t want to be very good, we want to be great. Now we don’t have a ceiling. Now that we know what it takes to get 10 wins, we can elevate everything that we do. It takes over every part of your life.”
Taking his goal of surpassing the Citrus Bowl performance to heart, Boykin recalls grinding out practices that began at 5:30 a.m. in preparation for the season. He focused on improving his physicality in spring practices and looked to enhance advantages like his vertical leap.
“Being my size we’re not always the fastest. I like to think I’m fast but being 6-4 and running a 4.3 (40-yard dash) usually isn’t realistic. I have to use a lot of my strength and my athleticism to be able to play this position. I can jump pretty high, I’m pretty strong and just using that in order to be able to get the upper hand on (defensive backs) who are usually smaller. I think that’s a huge part of this position; knowing how to use your body.”
Boykin bought into the help of Director of Football Performance Matt Balis to enhance his physical abilities. Balis, an Illinois native like Boykin, was brought onto the staff after the 2016 season. He introduced new training methods to the Irish that had been successful during his time with other programs such as the 2006 national champion Florida Gators.
“Maybe about a month or two into Balis (working with the team) we start looking at each other like, ‘Wow, you got big, you got huge.’ We’re starting to see our numbers increase and these numbers are coming quick. They’re growing rapidly and you see people’s body fat going down. Muscle mass going up. It’s just crazy really what Balis has done in such a short time here.”
Six weeks into the season, Boykin has been a key piece of Notre Dame’s undefeated start. He exceeded his career highs from the Citrus Bowl in just the second week with a 119-yard performance on six catches against Ball State. He recorded personal bests once again in Week 5 with 11 receptions for 144 yards in Notre Dame’s 38-17 victory over seventh-ranked Stanford. The undefeated Irish look to continue to increase Boykin’s touches with passing specialist Ian Book taking more snaps at quarterback.
“This season for me I’m not putting any expectations on myself or taking any expectations from anybody else. I’m going to be me, that is my expectation. I know how I can play. I know I can be dominant. I know I can make big plays. I’m going to show everybody else that I could do that.”
Book has been able to target more than just Boykin as Notre Dame returns many of the other receivers who competed in last year’s bowl game, each bringing something different to the table. The receiving group spans a wide geographic area with a mix of midwesterners like Boykin and senior Chris Finke, southerners like Louisiana native sophomore Michael Young, and even a Canadian in junior Chase Claypool.
“I don’t think we have anybody who has the same personality in the room. It works well together because we’re all different and we take that into account when we are going into work.”
Among the other receivers, Boykin now finds himself in a position of seniority.
“Finke and I are the two leaders in the room. We came in together and I think that’s something that we owe to ourselves is to be able to lead this group together. I think we’ve done a good job so far. We were just thrown into this position. We’re the oldest ones in the room and we have to be leaders and we have to set examples for those younger guys.”
Boykin did not begin playing organized football until fifth grade. It took years of begging to win over his parents, who preferred he postpone his football career until high school. Finally on the gridiron, Boykin did not immediately fit into the receiver position he calls home today.
“I was a running back all the way until high school. When I got to high school, the first day I was a running back and then after the second day I switched immediately to receiver. I was like, ‘I’m too tall for this.’ It’s just different in high school and it took me a little bit to transition. I didn’t really know how to run routes. I didn’t start learning how to be a receiver until that offseason when I started playing 7-on-7 for teams and learning from other people.”
Even after finding his ideal positional fit at wide receiver, it seemed unlikely that Boykin would end up with the Fighting Irish.
“When I was growing up to be honest, everybody loved Notre Dame and I’m one of those people that wants to be different so I didn’t like Notre Dame at all.”
Boykin’s animosity towards his future school began to fade when team representatives visited his high school and invited him to a recruiting trip. Not entirely convinced, it took the persuasion of his mother and his high school quarterback to bring him to South Bend to watch a game.
“It was snowing and it was just miserable out. My mom is freezing, my quarterback is freezing, and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Wow, I can really see myself here.’ We’re driving back and my mom looks at me like, ‘Well, I guess I know where you’re not going.’ I looked at her and I was like, ‘I kind of like that place.’ I went back down there again probably two, three weeks later and I really just fell in love with the place. I fell in love with the people here and the rest is history. I think I committed a month after that and loved it ever since.”
After committing to the Irish, Boykin has not had second thoughts about his decision.
“The passion that’s here at Notre Dame is unlike anywhere else. No matter how cold it is, the game is going to be sold out. During the walk from the Guglielmino Athletics Complex] over to the stadium seeing the joy on people’s faces, they’re truly excited to just watch you play on that stage. And it is a big stage. It’s something that we don’t take lightly at all. I love every moment of it. When I committed here I had a dream that I was going to graduate from here and go to the NFL. That’s what we do here: we graduate, win national championships, and go to the NFL. That was my mission when I came here, and I think it’s everybody’s mission. You don’t see that everywhere else in the country because there’s not too many schools that have a school like Notre Dame and can combine that with a football team like Notre Dame.”
The Irish face a gauntlet of road games in the second half of the season, but passed their first major test away from Notre Dame Stadium with a 49-23 win over No. 24 Virginia Tech in Blacksburg last Saturday. Boykin played a key role in the rout, registering 117 yards on eight receptions with two touchdowns. He will certainly continue to figure into the game plans as the Irish — now at No. 5 in the Associated Press rankings — to set their sights on a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Though he burst into the Fighting Irish consciousness with one of the most memorable plays in recent memory, Boykin is driven to add even more heroics to that list before he graduates. To do so would be to give back to the school and program that has already had a lasting impact on the receiver.
“Notre Dame is something that can’t be put in words, it’s something that you have to experience,” he says. “Notre Dame is an experience and it’s something that’s unlike anywhere else in the country.”