Jaelen Strong doesn’t play chess.
But if the Arizona State wide receiver ever did, you probably would not want to find yourself sitting across the board from him.
To watch Strong play over the past two seasons is to witness a receiver with a chess-playing mindset -- scheming against the scheme, looking three moves ahead in any direction, learning what his opponent does best, and then finding how he can best exploit it all for his own benefit.
Call him the Bobby Fischer of the Pac-12.
“There are a lot of wide receivers out there that can go run routes,” Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. “To be a special football player is when you take that talent and you add that knowledge and knowing what they’re trying to take away, knowing what defensive backs, what are they being taught to do and how can you use that for your advantage.”
Strong only started thinking about how he could utilize knowledge of defensive backs in a game in the past year. When Sun Devils coach Todd Graham took over coaching defensive backs last spring, Strong started paying more attention to what they were being told.
“When the DBs are getting coached up I write everything down,” said Strong, who keeps his WR/DB football notebook in his backpack. “I know exactly what the DB is supposed to do in a certain coverage and I know what he’s not supposed to do in a certain coverage. ... I know if he’s in the right spot at the right time.”
He began to study the film of any defensive back he could find -- ASU defensive backs, opposing Pac-12 defensive backs, Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson. Sometimes he’d pull Sun Devils defensive back Damarious Randall in with him so that Randall could break down what a cornerback was thinking on any given play.
Randall, who had never watched film with a wide receiver one-on-one before was surprised with how fast the questions went from general to more nuanced. It began with basic coverages and schemes, but soon enough Strong was asking Randall about certain ticks of certain DBs, or how the slight shift of a foot or hand could signal something.
What does this mean? What do you think he’s thinking here? Why would he move his left foot like that?
"He understands that his knowledge is one of his greatest talents,” Norvell said. “It’s pretty sparse in college football to find talented players that view themselves that way.”
With his expanded film study, Strong began tearing through practices with greater fervor than usual, making one-on-one matchups nearly impossible. Randall tried to see if he could get in his head with trash talk, but not even that worked.
They joked about how Strong might be better than some of the true freshman corners.
Could he be called upon to play defensive back if need be?
“I wouldn’t doubt it,” Randall said. “He actually knows every time a defensive back lines up in front of him, he knows exactly the coverage he’s playing, exactly the technique he’s playing. It’s easy for him.”
But what’s easy for Strong has been difficult for Randall, who has to watch his fellow defensive backs get picked apart by Strong play after play in practice.
“Every time you cover a great wide receiver, there’s something you’ve got to give him,” Randall said. “You can’t take everything away from him.”
“You just kind of have to pick your poison,” he added.
His growth from last season, his first after arriving in Tempe from Pierce College (Woodland Hills, Calif.), to this season shows how much his increased football IQ has benefitted his game.
Through eight games this season, Strong has accounted for 821 receiving yards (14th nationally), eight receiving touchdowns (T-7th nationally) and 40 catches that have resulted in first downs (T-7th nationally).
Through eight games in 2013 he had tallied 720 yards, five receiving touchdowns and 30 catches that resulted in first downs. The jump in the numbers are more impressive when you consider that teams are defending him differently this year as he's become a bigger threat.
“He has just matured,” Graham said. “He's mastering his craft, and he's doing that mentally, then physically. A lot of guys try to do it physically and not focus on the mental.”
Even though he's never tried his hand at chess, he has the mindset for it even if he doesn’t realize it.
It's been rare an opposing team has been brave enough to play him one-on-one on the football field. With some chess practice under his belt, chances are not too many people could take him one-on-one on the board, either.