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October 11, 2013

Strong on record pace in first college season




Quick question: When was the last time an Arizona State receiver had this strong of a start to his career?

If you're still thinking, stop. The correct answer is never.

With 39 completions for 569 yards through a mere five games, sophomore Jaelen Strong isn't just playing well for a newcomer, he's on pace to break the school's single season record for receiving yards.

The current record is held by Shaun McDonald, who as a senior in 2002 had 87 receptions for 1,405 yards.

Assuming ASU plays in a bowl game but not the Pac-12 Championship, Strong is currently on a 1,479-yard, 101-reception pace.

Perhaps most remarkably, Strong's four consecutive 100-plus yard games came in the toughest stretch of the season and early in his adjustment to major college football.

This year, in five games, only 25 of junior quarterback Taylor Kelly's 143 receptions have gone to true wide receivers -- which excludes sophomore running back D.J. Foster, who most often lines up at receiver -- other than Strong.

Sun Devil coach Todd Graham said something that has to be scary for Pac-12 foes, and that is Strong still has a long way to go before he reaches his true potential.

"I thought he was pretty good and he's met every bit of what my expectations are but I'm telling you fundamentally he's not even close to being where he needs to be and his knowledge of what he's doing," Graham said. "He's still learning and obviously one of the things (offensive coordinator) Mike (Norvell) and I have worked on is making sure we have a plan for him to handle success. We don't want him to have a great third of the season and then slip back and be distracted. But yeah I've been pleased by his performance, but I wouldn't say I was surprised. I thought he was pretty darn good. But you have to give him a lot of credit when it comes to that because there's guys on our team now that I thought would be a lot better than they are that have a lot of potential that haven't been able to make that transition as fast. That's our job as coaches but you have to give Jaelen a lot of credit."

The 6-foot-4, 205 pound Strong, a product of Pierce Community College in Woodland Hills, Calif., by way of Philadelphia, Pa., is No. 14 nationally in receiving yards on the year.

"I've never experienced anything like this," Strong said. "It's pretty exciting to me, but at the same time you have to stay humble and grounded and it's not really hard. You got these coaches and these guys are good for making you feel not so big, they're playing up the things you need to work on. They make it seem like it's the end of the world just to let you know that you have a lot to work on."

Coaches have said Strong can make substantial gains with his conditioning and route running, and he's working to develop in those and other areas.

"I have some mental educating to do and there's some technique I need to work on as well, and if I put those two together then coach Graham said I would be the best receiver," Strong said. "I need to improve on getting off the line quicker, releasing quicker and just finishing out games. Starting out games hard, finishing hard."

With the spotlight now on Strong, he has undoubtedly received more attention from opponents, but his confidence hasn't wavered.

"I just see myself as a player on the field doing my part," Strong said. "I don't really feel any pressure. If you let the pressure get to you that's when you start to fall and a lot of things start to get to you."

While Strong is undoubtedly talented, he has perhaps benefited from the lack of productivity from others in the receiving corps, necessitating his high volume of targets. No other true wide out has more than nine catches thus far.

To put Strong's numbers in perspective, last year, the leading true wide receiver was Rashad Ross with 37 completions for 610 yards during his senior year.

Already with 569 receiving yards, Strong is likely to pass Ross's senior season total on Saturday in just half of the 2013 campaign.

"I just came here with the mindset to just do what I can to win the game, doing what I can to help my team win the game, doing what I can just to make myself happy," Strong said. "I didn't come here with any mindset, but to just work hard and do what I can."

Strong is no doubt setting a high bar for others working alongside him in the position group on a daily basis.

"Those guys are motivated by his success," wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander said. "So as you see him, guys are running around and maybe they don't get as many passes thrown their way, but at the same time when you look at a guy like Kevin Ozier, they just have to stay focused and prepared and ready so when that moment comes when we need a fourth and 20 pass, then, he's motivated to make that catch so the motivation part is what you're coaching; to make sure that there's energy and effort because you never know."

Hardison finding his way

Coming out of Dodge City (Kan.) Community College as the No. 14 overall junior college prospect in the country, junior defensive lineman Marcus Hardison got off to a slower start for the Sun Devils than what was probably anticipated by coaches and some fans.

He's now starting to come around.

During his two years at Dodge City, Hardison tallied 96 tackles and seven sacks en route to second-team All-Jayhawk Conference honors as a sophomore.

"Marcus is one of the top defensive ends in America," ASU head coach Todd Graham said of Hardison at a press conference announcing the ASU signing class in February. "He's a guy that our fans are going to love in a hurry. The thing that attracted him was that we are one of the best in the country at getting after the quarterback. We think he'll have immediate impact here."

It hasn't worked out that way, with Hardison slow to adjust on both the physical and mental fronts. He had to make changes with his his stance, his get off and other technique-related adjustments in order to more efficiently utilize his skills on the defensive line.

With the injury of sophomore defensive tackle Jaxon Hood against Stanford, the lack of competent depth on the defensive line began to show. Before the game against USC, defensive line coach Jackie Shipp called on Hardison and others to step up and fill the void.

Hardison has not backed down and has shown significant signs of improvement in practice according to coaches.

"Marcus Hardison is someone that I think is really close to emerging," Graham said. "One of the things we pride ourselves in is transitioning those guys (junior college transfers) extremely fast to a high level. Marcus has had his best weeks of practice. Last week and this week has been the two best weeks that he's practiced so we're really looking forward to him stepping up."

Hardison said he's improved his buy-in and it's starting to pay off.

"It's a total mental thing with me," Hardison said. "I was just coming in thinking this and that and that I was going to do it my way. I was just being way too hard-headed, not being coachable whatsoever. It showed up though because I didn't get a lot of playing time in the Stanford game, so I was just like, 'I have to change something,' and ever since then I've started to be really coachable and it's paid off for me."

Notes

  • Hood is available to play Saturday after missing two games with a hamstring injury, but senior Davon Coleman will start at tackle after playing perhaps his best game of the season against Notre Dame.

  • Hardison received first-team reps in the defensive install period for the first time all season at defensive end but remained behind senior Gannon Conway during the 11-on-11 period observed by media.


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