Former South Dakota State and current New England Patriots running back Pierre Strong requested a meeting with his coach John Stiegelmeier following the 2021 season. They talked about a number of things, including the obvious goal for Strong: He wanted, desperately, to make it in the NFL. That was no surprise. Stiegelmeier had witnessed Strong changing his body and working long and tireless hours in the summer before his senior season with the plan of making the pros.
But then he confided something else in Stiegelmeier.
“Honestly, he was real about money issues and maybe having more money than he dreamt about having and how to act — how to deal with that,” Stiegelmeier told Patriots Wire by phone. “I thought for a young man that has a lot of pride and a lot of confidence for him to open up like that, it really showed a neat side of him.”
Strong’s journey at South Dakota State was a story of significant growth as a young man and as a football player. The Little Rock, Arkansas product went from being one of the quietest players on the team to a two-time captain.
“He became more of a vocal leader,” Stiegelmeier said. “Pierre was not afraid and didn’t hold back on the sideline, in the weight room, in the locker room. Guys respected him. And so when he talked, it was well thought out and guys honored that and followed him. He became a really good leader for us.”
As a high school player, his prospects were grim. It took a call from Strong’s high school coach for Stiegelmeier even to give the running back a look. And then Strong turned into the team’s most outstanding offensive weapon. Just when he began to hit his peak as a runner, the team asked him to share the glory with a freshman. The divided carries in the backfield. He embraced that role, too.
“For a guy that is the guy to cheer for the other guy — to cheer for Isaiah Davis. I really think that, in a time where everybody is ‘it’s all about me’ and him cheering for his competition, that’s a picture that tells a thousand words,” Stiegelmeier said.
It’s not like Strong’s stats were suffering. Despite playing two seasons and 20 games over the course of 11 months (due to cancellations from the COVID-19 pandemic), he finished his final college season with 240 carries for 1,673 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns. He added 22 catches for 150 yards.
Oh yeah, and he was 4 of 4 as a passer for 62 yards and four touchdowns.
Is this guy beginning to sound like a Patriot or what?
The thing about a South Dakota State product, however, is that the competition in the FCS isn’t likely to warrant a high draft status at the running back position, a spot that NFL seems to value less and less. It’s also rare for a Jackrabbit to go in the fourth round. He did not receive an invite to the Senior Bowl, instead accepting an invite to the East-West Shrine Game. His draft prospects weren’t looking similar to his college prospects. Every NFL team came for South Dakota State’s fall camp, after all. That’s when it was pretty clear he’d go in the NFL draft. But the question was how high Strong could push him up draft boards.
Strong’s performance at the NFL combine solidified his standing in the draft. He ran a 4.37-second 40-yard dash, the best time among running backs. He also logged a vertical leap of 36 inches and a broad jump of 124 inches. For those of you who don’t speak in terms of the NFL combine, those numbers scream explosiveness. He followed that performance with an equally impressive Pro Day, which included a 6.95-second 3-cone drill, which tests agility and places him in good company with shifty receivers like Danny Amendola. His athletic profile ended up being as impressive as any running back in this year’s draft.
“I did not see that (40-yard dash time) coming,” Stiegelmeier said. “It’s not that I didn’t believe in him or that he couldn’t do it. It’s just that an FCS program — you don’t really think like that at a program like ours.”
The biggest problem with Strong’s profile on paper is that he had five fumbles in 2021 along with a few drops. Steigelmeyer chalked that up to “not being on edge. … It was a lack of focus at times.” So that’s where the Patriots will work with him. And that’s probably the biggest uncertainty about getting him on the field and keeping him there.
Once he does get playing time, however, he should make a big impact. He will likely spend time behind the deep group in 2022. His position-mates include Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, James White, J.J. Taylor and fellow rookie Kevin Harris. It will be hard for him to make on-field contributions this season if everyone stays healthy.
And though many think Strong projects nicely as a third-down back that can replace White when he retires, Stiegelmeier isn’t ready to limit his former pupil to one gig in the NFL.
“I think Pierre can do everything in the NFL,” Stiegelmeier said. “There are running backs that don’t have good hands. Pierre’s got good hands. There’s running backs that can’t run between the tackles and they’re more outside. Pierre can do both. And I think Pierre can block. He’s an adequate blocker. … He will not waste a second getting better in every phase of his game, no matter how good he is right now.”