Former ASU receiver Jaelen Strong and current receiver N’Keal Harry talk about their similarities as players and finding greater purpose in football.
Two of the best receivers in recent Arizona State history – maybe longer – sit down and try to remember the first time they met.
“It might have been Notre Dame,” said Jaelen Strong, referring to ASU’s 2014 home win over the Fighting Irish.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” N’Keal Harry said. “After the game.”
“I think I met you in the locker room,” Strong said.
Strong and Harry are similar in terms of college production and status. In two seasons, from 2013 to 2014, Strong had 157 receptions (sixth-most in school history) for 2,287 yards (eighth) and 17 touchdowns. Over the past two seasons, Harry has 140 receptions (tied for 10th) for 1,801 yards and 13 touchdowns.
If anyone knows what Harry faces entering his junior season, it’s Strong. He understands the pressure of preseason expectations. He knows what it’s like to be the focal point of defenses. And perhaps most important, he understands the discipline it requires to stay focused while everyone asks about the NFL.
“I’ve actually admitted to N’Keal, told him that I more so want to be in his corner because of decisions I’ve made that weren’t always the best,” said Strong, who declared for the NFL after his junior season. In 2015, the Houston Texans selected him in the third round.
Strong remembers his approach well. During his junior season, he tried to perfect every drill. His daily thought process: If I can’t beat Damarious Randall in practice, there’s no way I can beat All-Pros like Patrick Peterson or Richard Sherman.
“I tell (Harry) every time I talk to him: Stay locked in, stay focused,” Strong said. “If you want to go Top 10, if you want to go Number 1 overall, the way you’re going to do that is if ya’ll go in there and win that championship.”
Harry has accomplished a lot in two years. In 2016, he was a Freshman All-American. Last year he was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection. Entering this season, the 6-foot-4, 221-pound receiver is a preseason All-American candidate and a first-round pick on some mock NFL draft boards.
Harry’s reaction to all this: working harder.
On most summer week days, he attended the team’s mandatory workouts. Upon completion, he caught balls on the JUGS passing machine. Then he would do an extra lift in the weight room before going home to “chill” for a couple hours. Later, Harry would go out for one final workout.
“I just feel like if I’m doing our team workout, then catching some balls, doing footwork after and then doing another workout by myself, that’s just going to separate me that much more,” Harry said.
Greg Moore and Doug Haller react to ASU football’s N’Keal Harry not making a Top 50 college football players list for 2018.
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Strong knows the feeling. Entering his junior season, he paid attention to what the experts said about his peers. About Alabama’s Amari Cooper, West Virginia’s Kevin White and Colorado State’s Rashard Higgins.
He wondered: What are they saying about those guys that they’re not saying about me? It pushed him.
“I feel like you could take it one of two ways,” said Strong, whose NFL career has stalled as he recovers from an ACL injury. “You could allow it to motivate you or you could allow it to hurt you. I used to find things that would motivate me. No matter how good they had me, I wanted to know what I could do better.”
There’s mutual respect here. While he was at Chandler High, Harry watched Strong blossom into one of the country’s top threats, a second-team All-American. Although he might be best known for catching Mike Bercovici’s Hail Mary pass to beat USC, Strong was a model of consistency, posting 12 100-yard receiving contests.
“Just his style of play,” Harry said when asked what he remembered about Strong. “The way he caught the ball. The way he finished. I watched him work out of the slot and I was just thinking, ‘That’s how I want to play.’ ”
Strong also has studied Harry.
“I feel like one thing he does have that I wish I had – he’s got a little bit more wiggle,” Strong said. “I’m more of a one-step-and-go kind of guy, so I was never really able to be back for punt return and all that stuff.”
Harry is more physical.
“I’ve seen guys bounce off him a lot, where with me, I kind of was more finesse with it,” Strong said. “If I don’t have to get hit, you ain’t hitting me. But with him, he wants all the smoke, (like), come on, bring it on.”
Strong has better speed.
“Yeah, he’s got me in speed,” Harry agreed.
Moving forward, Strong just wants to be available for Harry. During his ASU days, then-coach Todd Graham held everyone to a certain standard, but it wasn’t always that way in the locker room. Strong wishes at times someone was strong enough to say: “J, you’re wrong. Get yourself together.”
“That’s why I’m here,” Strong said. “I just want to see him do better than me. I want him to go out there – 1,500 yards this year, break Shaun McDonald’s (season yardage) record. I want him to be an All-American. Be on that wall next to me. And he can do it, too.”
As long as he gets the ball. Strong never had that problem with former ASU quarterbacks Bercovici and Taylor Kelly.
“We joke with Manny,” Strong said, referring to senior quarterback Manny Wilkins. “Manny, throw him the ball, man! I don’t care, Manny. Throw it! That’s what you got to do. That’s what T.K. used to do. Berco, too. Berco used to throw the craziest passes to me. I used to be like, ‘Berco, what are you doing?’ ”
“You got to do that,” Strong said. “Tom Brady posted a picture the other day that said: ‘Pick a guy, let it fly.’ That’s what you got to do, and I’m telling you: They’re going to double (Harry), but he won’t let Manny down.”
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