TEMPE, Ariz. -- With every catch over two defenders, the legend grows. Each leaping reception along the sidelines draws louder ovations from the crowd. A Sun Devil star is being born.
Jaelen Strong came to Arizona State with immense expectations from the coaching staff and fans, and so far has exceeded them.
Through his first four games, the sophomore wide receiver has 31 catches for 433 yards and and two touchdowns, and has topped 100 yards in each of the last three games. His is single-handedly carrying the ASU wide receiver group, who other than Strong collectively have totaled 18 receptions for 221 yards.
That production has Strong highly ranked among the nation's pass catchers. He is currently 12th in receptions-per-game and 14th in receiving yarsd-per-game.
With ASU's huge showdown in Texas with Notre Dame looming, I caught up with Strong to get his thoughts on his hot start, how he makes such difficult catches look easy, and how he is planning on attacking the Fighting Irish.
How do you feel the offense did against USC?
Strong: “It was promising for our future. We had a lot of mistakes. We left about 14 to 21 points on the field. We could have maybe scored 80. With a perfect game, it would be scary to see what we can do.”
You have three consecutive 100-yard games and are on a record pace thus far. How do you evaluate your individual season to date?
Strong: “I have to stay focused and continue to put in the work and set the bar higher. I’m not going for 100 (yards). I’m going for 200. It just happens I end up with 100.”
On which areas are you focusing your work this week?
Strong: “My release. Staying low and fast in my release phase and between my routes. That’s what I need more work on, getting off the line faster and being stronger off the line. It would be real scary. You just saw me and Coach (DelVaughn Alexander) working on releases.”
The backshoulder throw has quickly become a nearly unstoppable weapon in the ASU offense. How often do you and Taylor Kelly practice it?
Strong: “Honestly, we don’t practice it at all. He knows where to put the ball, and I just adjust to it. When we run the fade routes, he may put it on the back shoulder, he may put it out there. However he throws it to me, I’ll go get it.”
You routinely make leaping catches over defenders. What is the key to making grabs in traffic?
Strong: “I just try to be the one with the ball. I hate the feeling of the quarterback trusting the ball to me, and then me not coming down with it. I hate that feeling, and I hate watching it on film, because Coach goes over that more and more. So I just try to give them the reason to talk to me more during film. I had a few that I was supposed to come down with, but I didn’t.”
Are you aware of the defenders in those situations, or are you entirely locked in on the ball?
Strong: “I just focus on the ball, I don’t worry about the defender. They’re going to be there no matter what I do. Osahon Irabor has done a great job preparing me for that. When I first came here, he was there everywhere I went. Every move, he was on my hip. I just had to learn to adjust with him, and it carried over into the season.”
What is your scouting report on the Notre Dame secondary?
Strong: “They play a lot of man, a lot of two-man. We have to go out and attack. Those guys are smart. Those guys are physical. Those guys are very talented as well. They just played in the BCS Championship Game last year. These guys are very good. I’m not even focusing on their record right now, because on any given Saturday, anything can happen. You have to respect their past, their history and tradition.”
With such a big game upcoming and all of the distractions that it brings, how is the team remaining focused?
Strong: “Coach Graham does a great job of that. He tells us not to focus on those things. Just be ready to play. We have those new helmets. That’s another thing we could be worried about. It’s either going to distract us or hype us up. Hopefully it hypes us up.”
What are the keys to victory for the ASU offense against Notre Dame?
Strong: "We just have to own the ball. If we have 100 percent ball security we should win. No question. Our defense is going to do a great job getting takeaways. As long as we one the ball with 100 percent ball security and no penalties, we’ll win the game.”