(Photo: ASU Athletics)
If you need a reason to watch the Pac-12 showdown between Arizona State and USC, get your pulse checked. But I’ll give you two reasons regardless: Jaelen Strong and Marqise Lee.
In a game filled with headlines and subplots, this game could very well be decided by each team’s main target. Let’s break down the contrasting styles of Jaelen Strong and Marqise Lee from a boxing perspective.
In Sparky’s corner hails the Philadelphia product, standing at 6-foot-4 and 205-pounds, Jaelen Strong (in a bad Michael Buffer impersonation). Opponents have been unable to match his size, strength and speed. He also possesses big and powerful hands, and in just three games, Strong has emerged as Taylor Kelly’s undisputed no. 1 receiver. Strong would be your boxing slugger, one haymaker and it’s lights out.
In the Trojans’ corner, from Inglewood, Calif., standing in at 6-foot and 195-pounds, All-American Marqise Lee (once again in that terrible Buffer voice). Widely considered to be pound-for-pound the best receiver in the game, many opponents have fallen victim to his counterpunches, as Lee waits for his opening then strikes with precise speed and athleticism. Think Floyd Mayweather.
Last season Lee posted video game numbers: 118 receptions for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns. Those numbers were good enough for Lee to become the first Trojan ever to win the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top receiver. Lee was also recognized as the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year.
However, through Strong’s three games for the Sun Devils, and Lee’s four games for the Trojans, it is Strong that has produced better numbers. 24 catches, 330 yards, and two touchdowns compared to 23 catches, 293 yards, and one touchdown for Lee.
Lee’s dip in production can be attributed to the double-teams he faces on nearly every play, but also USC head coach Lane Kiffin’s play-calling. USC has reverted back to their smash-mouth football and tough defensive days that made Pete Carroll so successful. The USC offense will use their run game to set up play-action pass plays down the middle of the field, and expect Lee to be the one running those routes.
Strong admires the way Lee plays. Strong said he watched the USC star play when he was a freshman and sophomore, and that he thinks he can add a specialty of Lee’s into his own game.
“I mean he is a great receiver, you know,” Strong said. “He plays real fast, so that’s a big thing for him, so I’ll try and do that as well.”
Another aspect that both Lee and Strong excel in is their ability to go up and get the ball at its highest point. Some guys have that knack, and others don’t. This is more important for Lee, as he is considered small for a receiver, by football standards. Their uncanny ability to locate the ball at its highest point makes defending them that much more difficult. Even if guarded both can still go over the top of the defense and come down with the ball. The difference is Lee does it with athleticism, while Strong does it with brute strength.
Lee has proven himself worthy to be called the best receiver in college football, while Strong still has to show consistency day in and day out to try to earn similar respect.
The numbers through three games say Strong has the potential to be great, especially when the lights are the brightest. The Pierce College transfer has delivered his biggest blows in his two heavyweight bouts, against Bucky and the Cardinal. In those combined match-ups, Strong has amassed 18 catches for 272 yards and one touchdown.
Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell knew he had something special in Strong the day he arrived in camp.
“Jaelen is a guy that we were planning on being a big time play-maker for us,” Norvell said. “He has come in and done a good job at learning the plays.
“He is an extremely hard worker, very coachable, wants to be great, and that’s helped accelerate the process to help him perform where he is performing at.”
The physical abilities of Strong were never in question. The only concern was how quickly he and Kelly could establish chemistry. Being that Strong was a junior college transfer, he joined offseason camp later than most players, and was forced to adjust rapidly to his new environment.
There is no better determination of synchronization between quarterback and receiver than on back shoulder passes. The back shoulder fade takes timing, precision, and most importantly trust to complete. The only way to achieve the art of the back shoulder fade is repetition.
“It’s just something we work on in practice everyday, we will only get better and better,” Strong said. “Taylor (Kelly) is a smart guy and he knows exactly where to put the ball, I just go up and try to make a play.”
Trust takes time. For Taylor Kelly and Jaelen Strong to mesh they needed to get close on and off the field.
“Those guys room together on the road, they spend a lot of time together and they have great chemistry between themselves,” Norvell said.
While Strong has thrived, Lee has regressed. But I say don’t look into that too much. Lane Kiffin has essentially taken away the deep pass. USC quarterback Cody Kessler is only averaging around seven yards on his pass attempts, completing just 61 percent of his passes. It’s not all his fault, though. As great as USC’s offensive line run blocks, they are equally atrocious when it comes to pass blocking, giving Kessler no time to make his reads. Furthermore, Kessler has been the victim of dropped passes by all the Trojan receivers.
Lastly, it still remains to be seen if Kessler can throw the ball deep because he simply has not been afforded the opportunity to do so. I look for USC to take more shots down the field in this game. Kiffin has to look over at the opposing ring and see the eighth-ranked passing offense in the Sun Devils, and he has to open it up, especially if the Sun Devils grab an early lead. This means more opportunities for Lee to make an impact on the game.
With the Sun Devils unable to run the ball effectively, they have called upon Kelly to throw the ball more, to an average of 45 pass attempts per game.
This game may come down to which receiver is able to outperform the other, Lee or Strong. It will be interesting to see whose style ultimately prevails, the slugger or the counterpuncher.
Strong put it best: “It’s going to be fun.”
You can reach the author by email firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Sam_Rabadi