Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly and first-year receiver Jaelen Strong developed last season into one of the Pac-12’s most dangerous offensive duos. They made highlight-reel plays and took ASU’s high-powered offense to new heights.
This year, expectations are even higher. They are another year older, wiser and more familiar with one another, and the offense is expected to carry a team replacing nine defensive starters.
But as much as Kelly and Strong have connected on the field, the teammates have spent just as much energy building connections in the community away from the field.
ASU has team-wide community service initiatives, but some players go above and beyond. Kelly, who is approaching his third season as ASU’s starter, can be counted among them. His extra efforts have earned him back-to-back nominations for the American Football Coaches Association’s Good Works Team, which recognizes volunteerism and leadership.
Through ASU’s Scholar Baller leadership and outreach program, Kelly has mentored students at multiple area high schools and a charter school for at-risk students. Kelly received his B.A. in education in May.
"We’ll just go in and talk to them about how important school is and education is, that you don’t need to portray an image to be cool and fit in," Kelly said.
Beyond those organized activities, though, Kelly has made extra efforts to connect with the community. Last year, he attended a Saturday morning youth football practice on his own time because he’d met an older classmate’s children and wanted to see them play.
Most memorable for Kelly was a visit with a family he had been introduced to by his younger sister. The family included a young boy who had undergone multiple brain surgeries and didn’t do much more than sit up in bed for 15 minutes or so. When Kelly visited, the boy was up and about, smiling and talking about ASU football for a few hours.
"That stuff takes no energy on my part, and it means the world to those kids," Kelly said. "I love doing that type of stuff and plan on doing it the rest of my life.
That kind of commitment to community must have rubbed off on Strong, who roomed with Kelly in fall camp and on the road last year. Strong has participated in ASU’s Scholar Baller efforts at the same schools as Kelly and followed Kelly’s lead in making trips to Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
On Wednesday, Strong spent a few hours at the hospital. He played video games with a young patient named Isaac before stopping by the cancer ward to talk ASU football with a boy named Mario.
"He knows everything about ASU football," Strong said. "He’s a real good kid. It humbled me a lot meeting him.
"You just look at those kids, and every day for them is a hard day. A good day for them, we might consider one of the worst of our lives. That humbled me a lot."
While Kelly and Strong have a shared appreciation for the importance of building bonds in the community, it’s their connection on the field that garners national acclaim. Over the past week, both have been named to multiple preseason award watch lists, adding to already high expectations for the coming season.
Strong got to ASU late last summer after transferring from Pierce College in Los Angeles. He’d been communicating with Kelly since he committed the previous December, and when he arrived, Kelly immediately began showing him the way.
"Since the first day I stepped on campus he’s been a big brother to me," Strong said. "He showed me the ropes. Every day we’d talk about coverages or offense or how to read plays more quickly. Taylor’s taught me everything."
That relationship translated quickly to the field, and the pair connected 75 times, seven for touchdowns, as Strong racked up 1,122 receiving yards. Both earned All-Pac-12 Second Team honors, and Strong established himself as one of the conference’s best receivers.
"I have confidence if I put it anywhere in his vicinity he’s going to go up and snag it," Kelly said. "It’s a weird bond that we have, and it happened so fast."
That confidence is mutual — Strong knows Kelly will get the ball within reach — and it grew from hours of film study, afternoons of independent practice sessions and simply getting to know each other better.
"He’s quiet and I’m quiet," Strong said. "When we first moved in we would talk, but we both like our peace and quiet. So we’d both have headphones in, or we could watch a whole football game and neither one of us would talk about it until a big play."
The pair’s friendship has grown a great deal since then, and they believe their relationship on the field will grow just as much.
"The sky’s the limit for it," Kelly said. "We have worked really hard this offseason just watching film together, seeing different coverages. Even our timing on routes — we’ve been throwing every single day."
Kelly and Strong have already established themselves within the ASU football community as impact players. While this season offers the opportunity to do so even more, both hope their eventual legacies in Tempe include the work they’ve done to support the community that supports them on Saturdays.
"I want to leave the ASU campus and program a better place than when I got here, and that involves the community," Kelly said. "I would still do this stuff even if I wasn’t involved with football."