One throw. That’s all Briean Boddy-Calhoun needed to recognize Trevone Boykin’s A-plus talent as a quarterback.

The image is etched in Boddy-Calhoun’s brain. A fade pass to the wide side of the field. A beauty, right on the money.

“An NFL throw” is how Boddy-Calhoun describes it, the type of pass college cornerbacks aren’t forced to defend very often.

“Just from that throw alone,” he said, “I respected him because I knew he could put the ball anywhere.”

Boykin wasn’t a household name in college football at the time. He hadn’t generated a Heisman Trophy candidacy.

He was still largely a question mark.

A wonderful athlete, sure, but nobody outside of TCU knew his true ceiling as quarterback of a new run-and-gun scheme that represented a radical departure from the team’s previous offense.

Boddy-Calhoun and the rest of the Gophers defense watched video of Boykin’s debut in his new role against Samford last season. One play in particular, that fade pass, got their attention in a way that forecast the avalanche that followed.

“I knew he was the real deal,” Boddy-Calhoun said.

That’s no longer a secret. Boykin enters a new season in a different stratosphere after setting TCU’s record books ablaze. He carries the label of preseason All-America and Heisman Trophy favorite, along with expectations of a team picked to contend for a national championship.

This qualifies as a big-boy challenge for the Gophers in Thursday’s prime-time opener. Maybe the biggest challenge their defense will face all season — no disrespect to Ohio State.

Their formula for an upset is no mystery. Minimize Boykin’s impact and the Gophers have a decent chance. Allow him to treat TCF Bank Stadium as his personal playground and Mitch Leidner and the Gophers offense will face the unenviable scenario of a track meet.

“We’re playing the best offense that’s ever stepped foot in this stadium,” secondary coach Jay Sawvel said.

That statement is based more on fact than hyperbole. TCU returns 10 starters from an offense that averaged 46.5 points in its first season in its new “Air Raid” attack.

The Gophers gave a decent accounting against Boykin and Co. early last season, limiting TCU to only six second-half points in a 30-7 loss. Boykin passed for 258 yards and two touchdowns and also rushed for 92 yards.

Boykin wasn’t their primary issue. The Gophers offense doomed them by coughing up turnovers, repeatedly pushing the defense into tight spots.

And yet …

“That was one of the funnest games that I’ve played in,” Boddy-Calhoun said.

That one, a 23-point drubbing?

“Yes, believe it or not,” he said, “because the competition was so high.”

That’s the right mentality to espouse. They should welcome this challenge as an opportunity to test themselves, to be under that scrutiny, strength vs. strength.

The Gophers own a solid defense headlined by a secondary that ranks among the nation’s best. They’re facing one of the best players in college football and an offense that can score 50 points with a yawn.

This is their chance to make a convincing statement, and our chance to witness a compelling matchup in the opener.

“If you’re just a fan, you’ve got a chance to see a guy that may win the Heisman Trophy,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said.

To dampen his candidacy, the Gophers’ game plan should read thusly: Prepare for everything.

Boykin can hurt defenses multiple ways. He’s dangerous as a runner and he also spent time at receiver in his career.

As a passer, he is versatile in that he forces teams to defend the field both vertically and horizontally. He’s comfortable throwing deep or rifling quick-hitting passes near the line.

“It’s a huge challenge because you have so many different things to defend,” Sawvel said.

The Gophers defensive staff dissected their 2014 season and made a list of areas of improvements. Two frequent problems that frustrated coordinator Tracy Claeys were big plays off quarterback scrambles and screen passes.

“That’s something we have to get solved,” Claeys said before the start of spring practice.

It won’t take long to find out if they accomplished that.

The good news is that the Gophers know infinitely more about Boykin than the last time they faced him. They’ve seen him in person and studied 13 games of his excellence.

Nothing he does Thursday night should come as a surprise. Not even a perfectly thrown fade pass.

 

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com