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Notre Dame WRs Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool could be bookends of major ’18 story

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brandon Wimbush planted his back foot at his 28-yard line Thursday and heaved a long one. Striding majestically down the middle of the field was Miles Boykin — last seen by Notre Dame fans one-handing the catch of the year in the Irish’s Citrus Bowl victory over LSU — and a perfect pass found the enormous mitts of the 6-4, 228-pound wide receiver inside the opposite 20.

Just catch it and glide into the end zone, baby.

But Boykin, a senior from Tinley Park (Providence), dropped it.

“That’s a tough play to get back,” he said after Day 6 of training camp was over.

Miles Boykin gets away from LSU defenders for the winning 55-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of the Citrus Bowl on Monday in Orlando, Fla. | Joe Robbins/Getty Images

A must-see Sept. 1 opener against Michigan beckons. If the Irish are to be all they can be in 2018 — a playoff debut, anyone? — their aerial attack must come alive and flourish. That likely means Wimbush, a senior who appears close to locking down the starting job, pushing the ball downfield far more than he was allowed to do a season ago.

He has a giant — yet unproven — receiving corps that makes it seem more than possible.

Notre Dame has one of the biggest, best tight-end groups in the country, featuring 6-5 Alize Mack, 6-6 Cole Kmet and 6-5 Nic Weishar. But the real excitement these days centers around Boykin and 6-4½, 227-pound wideout Chase Claypool, a junior from outside Vancouver, Canada, who dominated the Blue-Gold spring game.

Call it Jump Ball U. — when the offense lines up in two-receiver, two-tight-end sets, Wimbush can float the ball up high and feel mighty confident that one of his guys will come down with it.

Tall wideout tandems are a trend in college football this season, but Notre Dame’s could become the most talked about in the land. It might surprise those who focus on Boykin’s and Claypool’s 2017 stats — combined, only 41 catches and four touchdowns — but it’s a vital part of the team’s 2018 script.

“Part of the reason why I didn’t have the spring I wanted to have was because of Miles and Chase,” said All-America cornerback Julian Love, who was beaten by Boykin on the aforementioned dropped pass. “They’re so big, and they’re so strong, but they’re so fast.

“Nobody can guard them, really. On paper, they shouldn’t be able to be guarded.”

Boykin ran the third-fastest 40-yard time of any Irish player in the spring and has a vertical jump that pushes 40 inches. Claypool may be even quicker and more versatile as a route runner — especially in the red zone.

The Michigan game can’t get here soon enough.

“I don’t think they realize how fast we can be,” Boykin said. “You watch our [practice] film, we consistently run past people. We put speed on the tape, we’re physical, we can block and we’re quick, as well.”

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With road-grader linemen Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey in the NFL, coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long aren’t going to lean as hard on the running game. Kelly didn’t have a master plan to pair Boykin and Claypool for this moment, but he sees what they can become together with a full-season opportunity.

Everyone watching the Irish in camp is seeing it.

“If I play the way I know I can play, then I know I’m an elite receiver, and there’s not much people can do to stop me,” Boykin said.

Kelly grabbed Claypool during Thursday’s action and told him: “You have all the tools. You just have to use them and put them all together.”

According to Love, Claypool — who has immersed himself in video of Falcons star Julio Jones — may have the best set of tools of anyone he has had a chance to go up against.

“I agree with that,” Claypool said. “Now I’ve just got to make it happen.”

If the Irish’s twin bigs out wide do just that, it could be the story of the season.