Monday, January 02, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: VT's Boykin is always on his toes

NEW ORLEANS - Call it a rare case of stage fright.

Jarrett Boykin knew there would be an audience, but he didn't expect this many people. He gazed out into the Burruss Hall Auditorium crowd on a late-December evening and saw chairs filled all the way to the middle section.

As the moment approached for Boykin to dance, he began to get a bit jittery.

Why, again, had he agreed to perform in "The Nutcracker"?

"But once you see the little kids doing it, I wasn't nervous," Virginia Tech's all-time leading receiver said. "They were having a good time with it. So I said, 'Hey, I'm older. I play in front of a lot of people all the time.'"

Tech offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring was in the audience that day. He'd been to the dress rehearsal the night before, too. His three daughters - 13-year-old twins, Caroline and Olivia, and 8-year-old Ella - all had major dancing roles in the holiday classic.

What Stinespring noticed was the same thing he's noticed for the past four seasons: Boykin never does anything half-speed.

Boykin's part was minor: two dancing scenes, each about two minutes. But when a friend had asked Boykin to help out with the production, the senior receiver recruited teammates Ju-Ju Clayton, Zack McCray, Eddie Whitley and Lorenzo Williams to pitch in as well.

They all took it seriously, and it showed.

"I couldn't really tell you who I was more proud of: watching my kids - or my kids as players," Stinespring said. "And they did a fantastic job. I caught myself just smiling, laughing that they were so into it. You could tell that they had practiced and it was important for them to do it well."

That's nothing new. Boykin's day-in, day-out dedication to his craft has made him the most productive wideout ever to come through Blacksburg. Tech's career leader in catches (180) and receiving yards (2,854), he can add to those totals Tuesday when the Hokies face Michigan in the Sugar Bowl.

Not bad for a guy had rated as the No. 114 prospect at his position coming out of Butler High School in Charlotte, N.C.

Boykin's philosophy always has been simple: Identify a goal and pursue it.

"Just look right at it and don't let anything distract me," he said. "Once I get something on my mind, I just work as hard as I can to achieve it."

That goes for school, too. Last month, Boykin became the first male in his family to graduate from college when he earned his degree in apparel, housing and resource management.

The celebration made its way to the Tech football offices, where family members rejoiced with a coaching staff that knows how much Boykin will be missed.

"To me, he's just perfect," Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "Every route is the same. Every effort is the same. And I think he has become the best because he's not an up-and-down person. He's not one day great effort and the next day not."

The consistency is reflected in his numbers. Boykin, who has started since midway through his freshman year, can record his third straight season with at least 800 receiving yards if he gets 69 against Michigan. He has caught at least one pass in 49 of the 53 games he's played, including 43 outings with two catches or more.

At 6-foot-2, 218 pounds, Boykin is neither the tallest nor the fastest. He is among the most determined. He is a master of catching balls in traffic and breaking through arm tackles. There's nothing he won't do to try to make a play.

Over the years, Stinespring has had to tell Boykin to stop diving for balls in practice. "Save it for the game!" he'll say.

Boykin doesn't know how.

"I've noticed I have done that a lot," he said, smiling. "I don't know; just when you see it, you just want to go get the ball. What you do in practice is what you do in the game. It just becomes innate."

It was the same way with "The Nutcracker." Boykin's performance was well received by the audience - particularly Stinespring, who gave the receiver a post-play bouquet of flowers just like he did for his daughters.

"I think Jarrett is indicative of what we'd like all of our players to be," Stinespring said.

The Superdome is a little bigger than Burruss Hall Auditorium, of course. Given the stakes and finality of Tuesday's game, Boykin might have a few jitters before it's time to go on.

But make no mistake: He's prepared for this moment, and he's ready to perform.

"Four years went by real fast," Boykin said. "I just want to come out here and try to make it one of the best ones - if not the best one - I've ever had."

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