Jaelen Strong was barely a blip on the radar screen when Todd Graham took over at Arizona State in 2012.
Now two years removed, the 2014 team's success could hinge on whether or not the 6-foot-4, 212 pound redshirt junior can excel beyond his breakout 2013 campaign.
No pressure right?
He looks heavier than that 212 mark now, and has added muscle in the offseason as well. Todd Graham echoed this at practice Sunday, saying Strong, "just seems so much...stronger."
During summer workouts, he posted a 39-inch vertical jump, which would have placed him tied for sixth at the 2014 NFL Combine. His 10-foot-7 standing long jump would have tied him for fourth at the event.
Take a look at the high projections for Strong this season and beyond:
- He's ranked the No. 2 underclassman wide receiver by Todd McShay of ESPN.
- Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated has him headed to the Baltimore Ravens with the No. 21 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft
- Dan Kadar of SBNation has him as a top-64 prospect to watch for next year's draft.
- Jason McIntyre of USA Today has Strong going No. 20 overall to the San Francisco 49ers.
- Dane Brugler of CBS Sports has Strong taken at No. 24 overall to the Cincinnati Bengals
- He was also ranked the No. 76 best player in college football by ESPN
But how much does Strong really care about any of this? Answer: He doesn't.
"It doesn't mean anything to me because I'm still in the same place as everybody else," Strong said. "I just want to help my team win, whatever I can do to help my team win that's all that matters to me."
In order to lead his team to victory in 2014, Strong will have to beat some of the best cornerbacks in the Pac-12. A few of the best returning players at the position that the Sun Devils will face in 2014 include Washington's Marcus Peters, Notre Dame's KelVarae Russell, Oregon State's Steven Nelson and Stanford's Alex Carter.
Strong was asked if he was looking forward to facing any one of these players in particular.
"All of them," he said. "I've got some experience now so I'm looking forward to playing."
Strong has clearly put the Pac-12 and the rest of the country on high alert, turning some heads last season with his back shoulder catches. The dynamic has changed for Strong, from a JUCO wide receiver who Arizona State was hoping to pan out, to a player with a target on his back.
"He's just gone out there and continued to perform each and every game and perform at a high level," offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. "His body control is unbelievable, to be able to jump and adjust to footballs and catch the ball at its highest point for a guy that has his size is really incredible."
Incoming JUCO transfer Eric Lauderdale has potential at the Division I level, and freshman Jalen Harvey has also emerged as a player of note in the early going of fall camp. Both of those players remain unproven and outside of Strong, the player with the next most receiving yards in 2013 is D.J. Foster (653), who will move into the backfield this season. The best wide receiver who identifies as such is Cameron Smith, who caught eight balls for 129 yards last season. The offense should be explosive, but Strong is going to have to replicate his numbers, if not improve them for the Sun Devils to have a lot of success in 2014.
Norvell believes Strong has the talent to achieve that.
"I think Jaelen is a special wide receiver; he's a guy that has tremendous size and tremendous abilities," Norvell said. "I think the sky is the limit to what he can get to."
Something that's helped Strong reach his full potential is his JUCO experience. A place where players can get lost in the fray and sometimes go unnoticed by college coaches, or in some cases struggle to qualify for academic reasons.
"It's as tough as it is to play here, you gotta work through adversity, you got to be tough, you got to be disciplined," Strong said.
As for Norvell, he's just thankful the Philadelphia native decided to put on maroon and gold when he made his decision to come to Tempe on Christmas Day 2012.
"I'm definitely glad he's on my team," Norvell said. "He's a fun weapon to have."