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After breakout season, Jahan Dotson has his sights set even higher in 2021

The following is the cover story of the Penn State football preview edition of Blue White Illustrated, which features 116 pages stuffed with great content! Click here to find out more and order your copy now!

When you’re a draft-worthy underclassman and you’re getting set to make one of the most consequential decisions of your life, you tend to get advice. You tend to get a lot of advice. Jahan Dotson was no exception.

Dotson had been thinking for a few weeks about whether to forgo his senior season at Penn State to enter the NFL Draft. As December turned to January, the urgency steadily increased, and so did the outside speculation about what he was going to do in the wake of a dazzling junior season. There were many factors to consider, opinions to sift through. But Dotson was fortunate. As he was weighing the various recommendations, suggestions, admonitions and hot takes, he received a piece of advice that snapped everything into focus. It came from K.J. Hamler, the former Nittany Lion wideout who had left early in 2020 and was later drafted by the Denver Broncos. “Listen to your mom,” Hamler told him. “Your mom knows best.”

Penn State Nittany Lions football wide receiver Jahan Dotson
Star wideout Jahan Dotson is on the cover of the newest edition of Blue White Illustrated.

It made sense that Hamler would emphasize the maternal connection. His mother writes songs about him and posts performance videos on Twitter. The Hamlers are famously tight-knit.

The Dotsons are tight-knit, too, if not quite as famous, and K.J.’s words clarified everything for his former teammate.

“I really thought about that,” Dotson said. “When has my mom ever steered me in the wrong direction? When has she been wrong about anything?”

Robin Dotson’s advice to her son had been to think about every aspect of his decision, not just the prospect of an NFL payday. She told him to think about his education and about what would make him happiest. Would he be happier out in the real world or would he rather spend one more year playing college football, working toward his degree and being with his friends?

After looking at it that way, Dotson’s decision became a lot easier: He was going to put the NFL on hold and return for one more year at Penn State.

The next part is going to be more difficult. With his final season approaching, Dotson is faced with the challenge of building on a junior campaign in which everything came together spectacularly. He caught 52 passes for a Big Ten-best 884 yards and scored eight receiving touchdowns. In addition, he averaged 24.6 yards on eight punt returns, including an 81-yard return that produced a game-changing TD against Michigan State. His punt-return average set a Penn State single-season record.

So, how do you top that? To Dotson, you start by embracing the expectations that your junior season inspired rather than flinching from them or pretending they don’t exist. In keeping with that approach, he is quite open about his goals this year: Dotson is hoping to put together one of the greatest seasons in Penn State football history. That’s not an exaggeration. If anything, it might be the opposite. It might actually undersell the scope of his ambitions.

Dotson said he writes the words “be legendary” on notebooks as a motivational tactic. He’s been in touch this off-season with Allen Robinson and Chris Godwin, hoping to pick up any pointers he can from a pair of Penn Staters who have gone on to achieve NFL stardom. The idea, he said, is to put himself in the kind of position where he’s “being talked about with the greats who have played college football, the Saquon Barkleys of the world, the Reggie Bushes, the Tavon Austins, those guys, just being in that conversation, having a season that people will be talking about 20 years down the road.”

Dotson’s willingness to talk openly about his sky-high ambitions might seem at odds with what his position coach, Taylor Stubblefield, has described as a quiet disposition. But as Stubblefield has also noted, “He has that slow-burning fire inside him.”

The Nittany Lions are hoping that some of Dotson’s self-assurance rubs off on a receiver corps that will be looking for contributions from a number of freshman-eligible players, such as Jaden Dottin and Malick Meiga. Dotson’s competitive fire “might not be that big blaze that you might want when you’re looking for a dynamic leader,” Stubblefield said. “But Jahan does some things extremely well. Leadership does not have to come from somebody who has the loudest voice. It has to be somebody who has influence over others.

“What Jahan has been able to do, really for the past few months and part of last year, is take guys to the side and talk to them in their ear a little bit closer than maybe somebody would do with a loud voice.

“And typically, Jahan is somebody who does things the right way. He’s learning, and he’s becoming much better at doing the extra things, doing the things that are not just required – going in and getting more JUGS work, going in and getting more route work, getting the quarterbacks together, getting the other receivers together so that we can do some route work. He’s doing that on his own. So I’m excited to see his growth. I’m proud of him, and he’s going to continue to be a better leader as he gets older.”

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Part of Dotson’s drive for improvement stems from his belief that he wasn’t as effective as he could have been last season. While he may have opened eyes around the Big Ten, Dotson felt he was simply meeting his own expectations, not exceeding them.

“I left a lot of plays on the field,” he said. “I could have honestly done a lot more. I should have. The one thing that I talked about with Coach [James] Franklin was that last year was a steppingstone to this year. Last year was just getting my name out there. People know who I am now. That’s what I did. So I met that expectation, but I still feel like there was a lot of stuff I left out there that can be improved and can be worked on, can get fixed.”

Dotson said he inherited a strong work ethic from his parents, recalling the days growing up in Nazareth, Pa., when he would see his father leaving for work at 6 a.m. and returning home just before dinner. He said his father has been in the real estate business, owned a fish market and worked for Verizon. “He pretty much does everything,” Dotson said.

It all made an impression. “Seeing him work and work, ever since I was a little kid, and seeing it pay off for our family, I want to repay him,” Dotson said. “I get that from him.”

It was Al Dotson who told Franklin that Jahan was headed to Penn State. The four-star prospect had been verbally committed to UCLA heading into the December 2017 signing period, but the Bruins had just fired Jim Mora, and Franklin had stayed in touch. With signing day nearly at hand, Dotson and his father placed a FaceTime call to Franklin and then-assistant coach Josh Gattis at about 11 p.m. Before Jahan could say a word, his father blurted out the news.

“My dad was like, ‘We’re coming, Coach! We’re coming!’” Jahan recalled. “[Franklin] always jokes about how my dad committed before me. It was a pretty exciting moment for us.”

One of the reasons it was so exciting was that it meant that Dotson’s family would be able to watch him play in person. That had always been the big disadvantage of attending UCLA, the 2,700-mile divide between his hometown and Westwood. But Penn State was only about a three-hour drive from Nazareth, and Jahan wanted his relatives close by.

“The biggest part of my life is my family,” he said. “Their support has helped me ever since I was a little kid. They’ve been able to come to all my games, my grandparents, aunts, uncles. So that was huge for me, just to have them be able to see me play. They wouldn’t be able to travel across the country every single week.”

Dotson went on to start four games as a freshman and all 13 games as a sophomore, finishing with 40 catches for 691 yards and five touchdowns in his first two seasons. He surpassed all of those numbers last year but still came away feeling as though there was more to be done. The Big Ten helped in that regard, with Dotson receiving third-team All-Conference recognition despite leading the league in receiving yards. It wasn’t exactly a slap in the face, but it didn’t feel good, either.

“I’m definitely motivated by stuff like that,” he said. “It just makes me want to work. It makes me want to work even harder to prove those people wrong.”

He’s also looking to prove some people right: himself and his family. Having made the decision to return for one more season, he’s eager to show that it was the correct one. To that end, he’s spending this summer working with quarterback Sean Clifford and fellow receivers Parker Washington, KeAndre Lambert-Smith, Cam Sullivan-Brown and the others, and he’s growing more confident all the while.

“It’s going to pay off,” Dotson said. “It’s going to pay off in the long run. I’m just excited for this season, because I know the work that me and Sean and Parker and all these guys are putting in this off-season is going to pay off. I just can’t wait.”


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