TEMPE, Ariz. — Sometime during the fourth quarter of Arizona State’s season-opening win over Sacramento State last Thursday, receiver Jaelen Strong sought out coach Todd Graham. Amid his first Division I game after transferring from junior college, Strong had a simple message for his new coach.
“He stopped me on the sideline and said, ‘Coach, I just want to thank you for bringing me here and giving me this opportunity,'” Graham recalled.
As thankful as Strong is to have a shot at ASU, Graham and the Sun Devils are equally happy to have him, as in his debut, Strong looked the part of the game-changing receiver he was billed to be.
“I thought he had a really solid first game, really good first game,” Graham said. “But not even close to what he can be.”
Strong no doubt has a ways to go before he has optimized his own ability and fully acclimated to ASU’s offense, the speed of Division I and the level of competition in the Pac-12. However, the early returns on the 6-foot-3 Pierce College product are promising.
In the two and a half quarters or so the starters played against Sacramento State, Strong hauled in a team-high six receptions for 58 yards and a touchdown. His routes looked mostly solid, and the touchdown catch he made came in tight coverage. It was obvious he will be a favorite target of junior quarterback Taylor Kelly this season.
Kelly, who has made quick use of a number of new offensive weapons, praised Strong throughout the preseason, a period in which he also helped Strong learn ASU’s system in one-on-one sessions. His efforts to build an early connection with Strong appear to be paying off, as Kelly liked what he saw in the receiver’s ASU debut.
“He was a little nervous,” Kelly said. “I expected that out of him. But once things got rolling, he did a great job of executing. He caught that tough post in the end zone with a guy on his back. He’s going to be a great football player, and I expect big things out of him this year.”
Strong admits he was nervous, so much that he felt like he was playing in slow motion during ASU’s first three series. It took the first of what seems likely to be many big plays to get comfortable.
“My nerves were just bottled inside me,” Strong said. “I didn’t really get rid of them until after that first touchdown.”
Strong reluctantly admits he was happy with his performance, but not too happy.
“I was pleased with my performance, but I wasn’t pleased with my performance because I knew there were mistakes I made,” Strong said. “I feel like I have a lot of room to grow.”
If he were giving himself a grade for his first game, Strong says it would be a C-plus. He was particularly irked that he dropped the first pass thrown his way. He also didn’t like a few routes he ran, ones he felt cost ASU first downs or extra yardage.
But regardless of early mistakes of progress still to be made, Strong showed he could be the big-time receiver the Sun Devils were looking for when they beat out schools such as Nebraska, Ole Miss and South Carolina for his services. He could be the player who changes the dynamic of ASU’s offense under Graham, giving the Sun Devils the go-to receiver they sorely lacked last season, a receiver who opens up the offense and keeps opposing defenses from loading up the box.
“They’ve got to pay attention to an outside guy now,” Kelly said. “It takes some pressure off (tight end) Chris Coyle and (running back) Marion Grice. It helps our running game out so they don’t stack the box and bring safeties down. We have the opportunity to go deep on them.”
Saturday’s game against Wisconsin will be a test of how good ASU can really be this season, and it will be a test of what Strong can do against a comparable opponent. It’s as much a measuring-stick game for him as it is the team.
But as sure of himself as Strong is now, he and the Sun Devils know that he’s only just tapped into his potential.
“He’s very confident in what he can do, and he’s learned a lot,” Graham said. “But to be able to master what he’s doing, we’re a ways away from that — even getting used to the pace, getting used to how we do things here. He’s a guy we’re expecting great things from, and it’s only going to get better every week.”