TEMPE, Ariz. -- Players play the game for a number of reasons.
Natural talent, love of the sport, and family are some of the most often cited motivators. For Arizona State wide receiver Jaelen Strong, repaying Sun Devil Nation is near the top of his list.
“Fans play a big part in it,” said Strong. “That’s part of the reason I took this journey to ASU, because they showed so much love. I have to pay them back for the love that they showed and give it my all every play.”
That love helped Strong decide to come to Tempe after a sensational freshman season at Pierce Community College in California. After he put up 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns, Strong was courted by a number of top schools, including Nebraska, South Carolina, Oregon State and Miami. Ultimately, Strong opted to become a Sun Devil.
However, his career did not begin on time, as a prolonged clearing process had Strong watching the start of fall camp from the sidelines. While he admits that the late start made for an “uphill” battle, Strong believes that he has begun to catch up.
“I think I’ve done real good coming in, as late as I came in,” Strong said. “Learning the playbook, things like that. Overall, I think I’ve done good. I won’t say great.”
Those who have seen Strong in practice may disagree.
Strong has quickly established himself as the team’s most dynamic threat at wide receiver. At 6-foot-4, he has the size to tower over defensive backs, and he also has the electric speed and open field moves to beat defenders deep and make plays after the catch.
His rare ability, combined with the team’s tremendous need at wide receiver, has led many fans to view Strong as something of a downfield savior. While a potential distraction, those heighted expectations have been set aside and are not something Strong is worrying about.
“I don’t pay that any mind,” said Strong of the hype. “I just come to work and come to play. Come game day, I’m going to try my best to give the fans what they like. Deep ball touchdowns and short catches that take the turn for touchdowns.”
In just the few short weeks since his arrival, Strong quickly earned the starting job at the X receiver position. Rather than focus on the pressure, Strong is concerned with doing whatever is necessary to solidify his spot in the lineup.
“I just came out here to work, trying to do everything I can do to earn that spot,” Strong said. “It’s pressure, but really no pressure. For me, it’s going out there and executing my plays. Not letting my team down. I’m just worried about getting the wins. Doing everything I can do, correctly, so my team can win.”
Strong has also developed a great rapport with quarterback Taylor Kelly, and that relationship between the two could potentially blossom into one of the Pac-12’s most lethal 1-2 combinations.
“It’s real good. Every deep ball he throws, it’s right there on the money,” Strong said. “If I drop it, it’s my fault. No matter what it is, it should never be his fault. He knows where to put it every time. It’s going to come down to me running every play or getting out of my break every play.”
While he rapid ascension may give some the false impression that such success is easy, Strong admits that there are plenty of challenges he’s faced in making the leap from junior college to the Pac-12.
“Technique. Discipline,” said Strong of the biggest differences. “It’s not just toss and catch out here. You need to know your technique, know your depth, know your route, know what the man-beside-you’s route is. You can’t just go out and do it your way, or you’ll mess the whole play up.”
Strong, of course, is not the only new wide receiver that the coaching staff brought in to help the passing game. Four other players—Ellis Jefferson, Cameron Smith, Ronald Lewis, and Strong’s Pierce teammate Joe Morris—join Strong on the depth chart, and each are expected to contribute in some fashion this season. Despite the steep learning curve, Strong sees progress being made every day by this group.
“We’re all pretty much on the same page,” Strong said. “It’s going to be, I’d say, the third week into the season until we all establish ourselves and get to that comfort zone. Coach Alexander is doing a great job. Coach Norvell is doing a great job. Coach Graham is doing a great job.”
A primary reason for the rapid growth of the newcomers is wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander. His hardlined leadership and mentoring have helped to instill the program’s hallmark discipline into his players, while also helping them grow as individuals.
“He shows no mercy, and that’s exactly what I need,” said Strong. “Young men need that today, to show them it’s not going to be easy in life, because there is always going to be someone to push you harder or work ten time harder than you. He shows no mercy, and I appreciate that. I had that in my life, but not to that extent. It’s humbling me a lot.”
With his Sun Devil debut quickly approaching, Strong is eager to take the field, but is having difficulty imagining such an important moment.
“I’m not even sure. I can’t even picture it in my head,” said Strong. “So many people are telling me it’s going to be so crazy, I can’t even picture it in my head.”
While Strong has set some ambitious personal goals for himself for 2013, the only number that truly matters to him is wins.
“The goals I set for myself this year are to go out and execute every play. Hopefully end up with 65+ catches, maybe over 1,200 yards, maybe 10 touchdowns is a good number. But most of all, doing anything I can to help my team. I can go out there and have zero catches but five pancake blocks on the perimeter to help Marion or D.J. score, I’ll be OK with that.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the team. Whatever I can do to help my team win and get to the Pac-12 championship, I’ll do.”