Strong stays grounded amid great success

Strong stays grounded amid great success

The wide receiver unit was one of the biggest weak spots on the Arizona State roster a year ago. Desperately needing a playmaker out wide, Todd Graham and Mike Norvell landed a recruit in the offseason that would completely change the outlook on the Sun Devils' offense in 2013: Jaelen Strong.

From the onset of the regular season, redshirt sophomore Jaelen Strong stepped in and added a downfield threat to Arizona State that they haven't seen in quite some time in Tempe.

He and quarterback Taylor Kelly clicked right away and had found a special, downright difficult to stop back shoulder throw that was on full display by the second game against Wisconsin. There was a drive in that second game of the season in which Strong and Kelly went to the back-shoulder-well three times in a row, and moved the ball down the field with ease, eventually leading the Devils to score.

Strong doesn't possess the top-line speed and agility that some of the conference's top wide outs such as Paul Richardson or Brandin Cooks have, but he does have tremendous size and strong (no pun intended) hands. The 6'4" 205 lbs. receiver mentioned that his size and ability to box out defensive backs gives him the chance to make plays on the ball on those back shoulder throws that almost seem impossible to stop.

Strong has been a key cog in one of the best offenses in Arizona State history. The Sun Devils are currently averaging 41.9 points per game and his 925 receiving yards is good for first on the team, and third in the conference despite being limited in three games this year with an ankle injury.

Strong admitted that his numbers could be even better had he not been bothered by the injury.

"I tried to not let it affect me, but unfortunately it has," Strong said.

Yet Strong bounced back from that three-game slide, and in a big way once he was all healed up. Against Oregon State, he had seven receptions for 106 yards – his sixth 100+ yard performance of the season.

In the next game at the Rose Bowl, on the biggest stage Strong has played in to date in his collegiate career, he was a major component in the Devils' first half offensive outburst. Strong accounted for 84 of Arizona State's 149 receiving yards in the first two quarters, and scored what ended up to be the game winning touchdown in the waning seconds of the half.

With just 40 seconds left in the first half, the Devils started their drive at their own 38-yard line and drove down the field into the red zone with just 11 seconds remaining. In the final offensive play of the half, Kelly connected with Strong from 19 yards out to put the Devils up 35-13 heading into the locker room.

"I just had an outside release go," Strong explained. "They were in cover two and we sent Marion up the seam so the safety had to pick and choose who was going to make the play so he was kind of baby sitting both and he got there too late."

Of course, Arizona State ended up winning the game against the Bruins, clinching the Pac-12 South title and securing a spot in the conference championship in the process, something Strong said he knew was possible when he pledged back in December of last year.

"It is sort of like a Cinderella story," Strong said. "We dream about things like that all of the time, but once it happens, it's so surreal. It's amazing.

"At night I was excited, so excited and happy. But once the next day came, it's now time to beat Arizona. One more step we have got to take care of."

The improbable season continues this weekend for the Devils as the Wildcats come to Tempe. This is Strong's first opportunity to get a taste of what the Territorial Cup rivalry game means to the fans and the players as well.

"(The veterans) told me that it is a big deal," Strong said of the UofA game. "Some of these guys have been here for five years and they told me it's a very serious game. It's the most hyped up game all season; the fans enjoy this game. I heard it's already sold out so I'm expecting a big crowd and I can't wait.

"I know exactly what this game means; it's a big deal."

With Marion Grice potentially out with a leg injury he suffered against UCLA, and D.J. Foster seeing an increased role as a running back, Strong could see a huge boost in targets heading his way against the ‘Cats.

"That's what we prepare for," Strong said, "God willing Marion will be okay, but if not that's what we prepare for.

"I have got to go out and attack. (We) have to go out and get a win. We are in front of our home crowd, undefeated at home this year and we are going to stay undefeated."

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