Strong Prepares for Next Chapter

One of the positions Arizona State had hoped to upgrade this season was wide receiver. The 2013 recruiting class included five newcomers at the position, including junior college transfer Jaelen Strong, who's largely considered to be one of the crown jewels of this year's class. After finally being academically cleared the redshirt sophomore is anxious to make his mark

In 2012 under first year Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell, Arizona State ranked 14th nationally with 38.4 points per game scored, yet still managed to struggle moving the ball at critical times last season. The Sun Devils were 44th overall in passing offense, averaging just 259.2 yards per game, and lacked the type of downfield threat and overall potent aerial attack that struck fear into opposing defenses. In fact, the leading wide receiver for ASU last season, Rashad Ross, had only had 37 catches for 610 yards and six touchdowns.

Therefore, Head Coach Todd Graham and his staff hit the recruiting trail in an effort to re-build the wide receiver position into the kind of group he hopes can help enhance his high-octane offense and reach its potential in year two.

The Sun Devils welcome three freshman, including Cameron Smith, Ellis Jefferson, and Ronald Lewis, and two junior college transfers, both hailing for, Pierce (Calif.) College Joe Morris and Jaelen Strong. And while all figured to be contributors in some capacity in 2013, it's Strong that everyone is counting on to become ASU's go-to receiver.

Officially listed at 6'4" and 205 pounds, Strong dominated the competition while at Pierce, as he hauled in 67 catches for 1,263 yards (18.9 yards per catch), and 15 touchdowns in just 10 games for the Bulls.

As a result, the former three star playmaker received offers from all across the nation, including Miami (Fla.), South Carolina, and Nebraska. However, he said he knew in his heart that Arizona State was where he wanted to be after he first met with Graham.

"Oh man, he's a good guy," said Strong at ASU's Media Day. "He's been one of my mentors ever since he started recruiting me. He came to my house all the way in Philadelphia and sat down with my grandparents and my mother and told them he was going to make me the best man I can be. From there on, that was in my heart because no other coaches flew out there to see my family or made that kind of promise to my family.

"I just know, a guy of his character, when you get a promise like that, nine times out of ten it's going to happen and I'll take those chances any day."

While Strong delighted the Sun Devils with his pledge and subsequent signature on National Letter of Intent Day, they've been holding their collective breath ever since as they awaited him to be cleared academically and be admitted into the school. At the time, Strong was 27 credits shy of graduating with his AA degree and the task seemed daunting to say the least.

Nonetheless, with the help of his school counselors and ASU, he was able to follow an academic plan that allowed him to graduate on time and report to fall camp, despite needing to wait for his official clearance. Why did the wide receiver cram such a large number of credits instead of spreading his classes out and graduating in December of this year, which seemingly has been the plan for a while.

"It was really just the way I was looking at JUCO and just the way things happen at JUCO," said Strong. "I just couldn't continue on that route anymore and couldn't wait another year. I had to get out of there as soon as possible and Arizona State had my heart for a while now. I just made a promise to Coach Graham that I would get everything done and here I am.

"I had quite a few classes but the coaches, they've asked me to just put all that behind me and focus on Arizona State and this new chapter here. It was a tough road but I got it done. I really just wanted to be a Sun Devil. I wanted to be a Sun Devil right now and didn't want to wait any longer."

In Strong, the Sun Devils now have a receiving target that's not only physical, but also has the ability to stretch a defense with his speed. He fits one of the offensive unit's biggest needs on the outside and he sees it as a perfect fit for his style of play.

"I really like the offense a whole lot," he commented. "It's a fast-paced offense that can really get me open on one on one's, which is what I like. And they like to get downfield too, and that's my type of game. Coach Norvell explained the offense to me, I came in and picked it up. I still have a lot of learning I need to do but I pick up on things really quick and I'm excited to get out there."

Unfortunately for Strong, after a summer full of studying, he was forced to spend the first three days of practice watching from the sidelines as his new teammates opened up fall camp in preparation of the new season. In his absence, as he awaited his official academic clearance, fellow newcomers Jefferson and Smith each had standout performances, leaving Strong with some catching up to do as the team heads into week number two of fall camp.

Yet, despite having to sit out, Strong insists he doesn't feel a sense of urgency and instead is just happy his time has come to get back on the field.

"Those guys are great," he said of Smith and Jefferson. "Those two are my favorite receivers right now. I even learn some things from them. I watch them and the things they do and they teach me things, even though they're young. I'm always learning. I wouldn't say there's a sense of urgency, but I've been waiting for my time to come along and it did."

On Friday, Strong finally got to dress for fall camp practice with his new team. Despite not being able to partake in any full pads session until Sunday night, he was still able to participate in non-contact passing drills and has already been able to develop a connection with the Sun Devil signal callers.

"Oh yeah, I went through it a little bit with Taylor (Kelly) and we got our chemistry down just a little bit," Strong commented. "Even in just a short time I feel like our chemistry is improving. Like today, he threw me three deep balls and I caught all three of them, so the chemistry is there and I just can't wait for the season."

While Strong awaits his first practice in pads tomorrow evening and the chance to contend for a starting position in the Sun Devils offense in 2013, he'll also be serving up a treat for ASU fans.

As part of school project, the receiver and one of his friends filmed a documentary on his path towards becoming a Sun Devil. The documentary, which can be found on YouTube ( Strong will post a link to it tomorrow on his Twitter page) will detail some of his life's struggles, including growing up without a father, and the academic plan he followed to graduate and ultimately transfer to Arizona State.

"A friend of mine was doing a project at school so he just asked me to do it for him and try to be a good sport," Strong explained. "It's really about where I came from, just growing up without a dad because he passed away when I was young. So just growing and staying focused, keeping my eye on the prize and just continuing his legacy.

"It's really me just working out and everything that it's taken to get to this point."

And with much anticipation and excitement, the ASU coaches and fans will now witness the next step of Jaelen Strong's life journey and its next chapter.

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