One year ago, the notion that Miles Boykin would be entertaining the thought of leaving Notre Dame to enter the NFL draft instead of utilizing a fifth year of eligibility would have seemed foolishly premature.
The knock on Chase Claypool – after a 29-catch, two-touchdown regular season and missing the Citrus Bowl with a shoulder injury – was consistency and getting a firm grip on his emotions from play-to-play.
Chris Finke? Nothing more than a bit player at receiver with one catch in the final six games of 2017.
One season/12 games later, the trio of Boykin, Claypool and Finke has become a pick-your-poison pass-catching unit that – in concert with Ian Book – has totaled nearly 150 receptions and 2,000 yards with a combined 14 touchdowns.
Not bad for a group that collectively in 2017 would have equaled the output of Notre Dame’s No. 3 receiver in 2018.
“You’ve heard the stories of what Coach (Matt) Balis has meant to our program,” said Irish receiver coach Del Alexander. “It’s played a significant role on our entire team, including our receiving corps.”
Book’s insertion into the starting lineup after three games cannot be overestimated. On pace for a combined 100 catches for less than 1,500 yards and four touchdowns, Boykin, Claypool and Finke have flourished with Book at the controls.
Boykin leads the way with 54 receptions for 803 yards and eight touchdowns, including at least one touchdown in a six-game stretch.
Claypool caught at least five passes in five of the last six regular-season games.
Finke made a mark in the first game with a 43-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter against Michigan and went on to shine as a pass catcher as well as a punt returner, particularly in November.
“I’ve been really proud of the way they’ve worked and improved to lead our receiving corps,” Alexander said.
Boykin, of course, flashed his potential to emerge in ’18 with a sneak preview in the Citrus Bowl against LSU when his 55-yard catch-and-run with 1:28 remaining lifted the Irish to a 21-17 victory. Boykin took on a leadership role among the receivers in the spring and never slowed down.
“Definitely in the weight room, but with Miles, it’s just the work ethic,” Alexander said. “It’s a matter of going out and being able to have a purpose to the work. Miles understood what it was individually that he needed to work on. There’s a tremendous focus and you’re seeing the results of that.
“He can adjust to all the balls. He sees the ball well, and once he puts two hands on the ball, he’s going to catch it. He’s really good athletically at adjusting to balls. He’s patient. He lets the game come to him. He’s able to stand on the line of scrimmage and assess what’s happening on the other side. That just helps him come off the ball with confidence.”
By the midway point of the 2018 season, Claypool appeared to be on a mission that with every catch of the football, he would refuse to go down without a colossal fight. It ultimately led to an eight-catch, 130-yard, one-touchdown performance in the ninth game against Northwestern. He finished the regular season with 48 catches for 631 yards and four touchdowns.
“On the field, it really started in training camp,” said Alexander of Claypool. “The off-season conversations, the first day in meetings, being first, being super attentive and understanding what was going to help him reach his goals…He’s carried that through the season. His attention to detail off the field and in meetings has created a consistency on the field.
“We’re all working on our emotions every day. This is an emotional sport and Chase is definitely an emotional player. The fire that he has, he’s learned to control and channel his ideas and thoughts and passion. That’s helped him focus more. That’s helped him to see more and develop faster because he’s not just playing the game based on emotion.”
After Finke’s sensational reach-back touchdown grab against the Wolverines, he continued along a steady path before breaking out with 20 catches for 209 yards in his final four games, including a seven-catch, 86-yard game against USC. His 24-yard touchdown reception late in the first half launched a 24-0 run and a 24-17 victory. Finke will take his 47-catch, 547-yard, two-touchdown regular season into the Cotton Bowl.
“We’ve talked at length about things he needed to do to have a significant role,” Alexander said. “One of those things was to be stronger. He doesn’t have to be the strongest guy on the team, but he has to be able to use his strength against some of the bigger players he faces, and he does that well. He does that as well as anyone.
“Because he’s smaller, the timing of ripping through an arm bar or giving a guy a straight arm is important. Given his length, he does that really well. To be able to do that against stronger, bigger players is especially important. You can’t run away from every defender.”