TEMPE, Ariz. — Todd Graham looked down at the stat sheet after Saturday’s bizarre, 32-30 win over No. 20 Wisconsin at Sun Devil Stadium.
In just his second game in a Sun Devil uniform, receiver Jaelen Strong caught six passes for 104 yards, including three crucial catches in the fourth quarter to extend drives and help Arizona State rally to upset the Badgers.
“Jaelen Strong. Wow. That was a good signing there,” Graham said to a chorus of media laughter.
And the Devils have only seen a hint of what Strong might become.
A three-star junior college recruit according to Rivals.com, the 6-foot-4-inch receiver caught 67 passes for 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns at Pierce Community College (Calif.) in 2012 and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds.
But he missed the first few days of training camp because he hadn’t been academically cleared to play. With the Devils needing major improvement at the receiver position this season, Strong knew he had to get up to speed quickly, but there have been plenty of bumps in the road.
“To be honest, I’m upset with myself that it’s taken longer than I thought it would,” he said. “It’s been real hard. Real hard. But I’ve got guys like Coach (Mike) Norvell and Coach (Todd) Graham and (quarterback) Taylor Kelly in my corner, and that’s the reason I’m progressing so quickly.”
That, in turn, is a comfort for Kelly, who has talked repeatedly about having more weapons at his disposal this season than last year when the Sun Devils’ receivers were widely considered the weakness of the offense.
“It’s just the little details that we practiced over the summer,” he said, when asked where Strong still needs work. “We (built) that rhythm over the summer when he wasn’t here, so he’s just trying to get up to speed.”
Strong had a key drop early in the game when nothing seemed to be going right for the Sun Devils other than their defense getting big stops to keep them within striking distance.
“I was mad, but as soon as I got back on the field I forgot about it,” Strong said.
Good thing. The Devils needed him on their final two scoring drives. Strong caught a pair of back-shoulder throws from Kelly on the go-ahead drive for ASU. And he made a spectacular, leaping catch on a 50-50 ball for a 20-yard gain to the Wisconsin 12-yard line on the final TD drive.
“To be honest I didn’t think it was that crazy,” he said. “I was just going up and making a play.”
Strong got plenty of help from tailback Marion Grice (138 yards of offense, four TDs) and running back DJ Foster (seven catches, 69 yards), but that final catch in particular is why coaches are so excited about his potential.
“He’s a very gifted player and he made some big-time plays,” Graham said. “And he’s just getting started.”