TEMPE, Ariz. — Sophomore receiver Jaelen Strong has many gifts on the gridiron: Great hands, tremendous speed, a physical presence down the field and impressive footwork along the sidelines just to name a few.
But four games into his career at Arizona State, the JUCO transfer’s greatest skill might just be his ability to simplify the task in front of him.
First career game at ASU? Fifty-eight yards receiving and a touchdown.
Nationally-televised showdown against the reigning Big Ten champions? Six catches for 104 yards, including four first down receptions in the fourth quarter.
First road game against the reigning Rose Bowl Champions? A career-high 12 catches for 168 yards and a touchdown.
Showdown with a powerhouse program and the reigning Biletnikoff winner Marqise Lee? Seven catches for 103 yards.
“I just go out there and do what I worked for all week,” a matter-of-fact Strong said Thursday on why he’s played so well on the big stage in 2013. “Hopefully it shows up in the game. If not, I just try to keep grinding and try to find something to help my team win.”
Luckily for Strong and the Sun Devils, he doesn’t have to find other things to do to help his team win. His preparation has more than shown itself on Saturdays.
Through four games, Strong has amassed 100 yards or more three times and ranks third in the Pac-12 with 433 receiving yards.
In the 6-foot-4 wideout, ASU now has an element in its offensive arsenal that was severely lacking in 2012: a big-play receiver who shines when the bright lights come on.
Strong, who was added to the Biletnikoff Watch List this week, credited a lot of his early-season success to the rapport he’s developed with starting quarterback Taylor Kelly.
“You know [he and I] practice hard every chance we get,” said Strong. “It’s that, plus the confidence we have and the coaching. All those three things together make for the perfect match.”
The connection has aided ASU’s offense during a very challenging portion of the schedule, but there is still work to be done.
Saturday the Sun Devils will take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the Shamrock Series at Dallas’ AT&T Stadium — a contest Strong said he circled on his calendar the day he signed to play for Todd Graham last December.
Although he’s excited for the opportunity, ASU’s star receiver noted that his primary focus is on matching up against Notre Dame’s secondary, and not on the fact the game will take place inside a $1.8 billion NFL stadium on NBC.
“I see a lot of technique [from their cornerbacks],” said Strong. “There’s a lot of coaching involved; they’re not guys like we saw last week, guys that are just out there scrapping that will play off of what they know. They will play off of what they’re coached to do.
“Those things right there can cause some issues, because they’re coached enough where the discipline never strays away from them. They’re a very disciplined team. We’ve got to go out there and work every play.”
While it’s clear the moment and subsequent spotlight have done nothing to deter the sophomore’s performance level, even Strong, who has become a master of simplification, couldn’t completely downplay what a potential win over the Irish Saturday would mean for both him and the program moving forward.
“I have the opportunity to go out there and show the world what I can do,” said Strong. “Coming from a junior college and where I came from, a lot of people don’t know who I am. So this is going to be a great opportunity for me and a great opportunity for Arizona State.”