Strong Takes Leap of Faith, Preps for Draft
DevilsDigest caught up with the playmaker as he reflected back on his two year ride at Arizona State and his decision to declare for the draft. It’s Saturday afternoon and Jaelen Strong has just spent the last 90 minutes signing autographs for Sun Devil fans of all ages inside Paradise Valley Mall. While the session has ended, a number of maroon & gold clad onlookers linger around, flashing the pitchfork and congratulating Strong for all of his accomplishments at ASU while also trying to get one last picture with the playmaker. For many, it’ll be their last time seeing Jaelen Strong, the Sun Devil. Appropriately, he’s sporting a camouflage ASU hat and some leftover swag from the Sun Bowl, maintaining a low profile despite being the center of attention. In a nutshell, it’s symbolic of his two years at Arizona State. A tireless worker, Strong makes the extraordinary look ordinary yet he’s a man of few words who often shies away from the attention his play on the field commands. There’s no flash, only hard work. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Strong’s road to ASU was anything but paved with gold. He lost his father to cancer at the age of nine and despite establishing himself as one of the area’s top players, was only lightly recruited out of high school and forced to go the junior college route in an effort to attract more interest from division one schools. Strong followed his childhood friend, Gerald Bowman, to Pierce (Calif.) College where in one year he proved his doubters wrong, catching 67 passes for 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns while becoming one of the most sought after junior college wide receivers in the nation. Strong delighted Sun Devil fans when he committed to Arizona State on Christmas Day 2012. It was that one big, shiny present that ASU badly wanted and sorely needed; a top-tier wide receiver who could help open up Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell’s high-octane offense. In his first season at ASU, Strong, who says he patterns his game after Brandon Marshall and Larry Fitzgerald, caught 75 passes for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns. He recorded 100 yard receiving games in five of his six outings and was named to the All-Pac-12 Second Team. Last season Strong elevated his game even higher, totaling 82 receptions for 1,165 yards and 10 touchdowns earning All-Pac-12 First Team honors while also pushing himself into the ASU record books. His 82 receptions in 2014 rank third-most ever at Arizona State and his 1,165 yards are fifth-most in school history. Strong is also just one of three players to ever have multiple 1,000 yard receiving seasons at ASU and his 157 career catches are fifth-most ever at ASU. To no one’s surprise, Strong announced on December 22nd that he’ll be foregoing his senior season at Arizona State to enter the 2015 NFL Draft. Given all that he’s accomplished on the field the last two seasons, it seemed like the proverbial no-brainer decision to most, but yet the junior admits he was torn on whether to come back for one final year in Tempe or to make the leap to the next level. “It was a tough decision,” said Strong. “I sat down with my family and talked to them. I talked with Coach Alexander, Coach Norvell, and Coach Graham. The opportunity was there and I had it take that leap of faith. You know, eventually you’ve got to take that leap of faith in life. I figured out I could play at that level so I took that leap of faith. “I was willing to do whatever was gonna be best for me. I looked at it like maybe I could come out of JUCO and play two years (at ASU) and then enter the draft and it just turned out that way. But if I needed to come back, I would have come back.” Strong made his announcement as the Sun Devils prepared for their Sun Bowl showdown with Duke, signaling his last game at Arizona State. In true Strong fashion, he went out with seven catches for 103 yards in an Arizona State win, the last of the 20 victories he experienced in his two years at ASU. “Everything speaks for itself,” he said reflecting back on his time at ASU. “Coming out of JUCO, it prepared me for the tough choices in life and helped me become a better man. ASU did all of that. I’m gonna miss it a whole lot but now it’s time to be a man and look at the business things in life. “They can’t baby me like they did at ASU. I’m on my own now. Everything that they taught me, I’ve got to take with me.” While his accomplishments on the field speak for themselves, Strong admits that some of his fondest memories at Arizona State will always be those that took place off the field and the relationships he formed with both teammates and coaches. One of the biggest influences on Strong since his arrival has been that of Wide Receivers Coach DelVaughn Alexander, who not only helped the talented wide receiver develop his game on the field but kept him on a straight path off of it as well. “He taught me how to stay successful on and off the field,” said Strong. “He always has his little tips and reminders when it comes to football and off the field stuff too. He taught me how to stay out of trouble and keep my mind on the grind and fight through the strain that was put on me at ASU. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot. Playing fast isn’t always just about speed. It’s also about how fast you develop the mental part of the game and I think ASU has done that for me very well.” Strong’s most meaningful relationship will always be with his head coach, Todd Graham. After all, it was Graham’s willingness to travel to Philadelphia, when no other coach would, to meet with Strong’s family and his promise to make him a better man which ultimately won Strong over during the recruiting battles. “To stay down and remind yourself where you came from,” remarked Strong when asked about some of the fatherly advice his coach has shared with him. “Everything can be taken away from you. Like he said, there’s gonna be a day when you’ll have kids and you’ll wake up and your kids are gonna be sick. You’re gonna have to find a way to fight through it. It’s going to hurt you a lot. One day your mom is gonna be sick, but you’re gonna have to find a way to fight through it. “A lot of the time, we’re so worried about what’s going on in our own situation, but a lot of people have very worse situations. Right there, that stuck with me. I just learned to stay down and fight through it.” During his first game at Arizona State on September 5th, 2013 against Sacramento State, Strong approached Graham along the team’s sideline and thanked him for the opportunity to play college football. The two shared a similar moment following Strong’s final game as well. “I thanked him for everything that he’s done for me,” he said. “Our relationship will continue to grow from here on out. I know there’s a lot more that I’ll need from him; advice and all that. He’s just one call away.” Strong is still enrolled in classes at Arizona State for the spring semester, and every spare minute he has is now mostly spent at Exos (formerly Athletes Performance) in North Scottsdale where he’s been training for the NFL Combine and ASU’s Pro Day working on his speed, route running and attacking the ball. “Just things that are going to make the scouts say ‘ooh’ and ‘aw,’” he says with a smile. At 6-3 and 215 pounds, not only does Strong possess NFL size, but he’s also got the strength, hands, and body control to be a potent threat at the next level. Projected by many pundits as a first round pick, Strong understands the challenges ahead of him. However, just as he has his whole life, he looks forward to taking them head on and without any fear. “My expectations are the same when I came to ASU, to dominate.”
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