Jahan Dotson didn’t tell his parents in November that he would be making his first start for Penn State’s football team. Instead, he made a suggestion.
“Get to the game early,” the Nazareth High graduate said the night before Penn State played Wisconsin. “I might be on the Jumbotron.”
Al Dotson sat in Beaver Stadium recording the moment, which is what he had hoped for when college coaches began recruiting his son. Al and his wife Robin have commuted to work from Nazareth to New Jersey three hours a day for 10 years. They’ve tried to miss as few moments of Jahan’s career as possible. They didn’t want his college days unfolding three time zones away.
Jahan Dotson could have been at UCLA this fall, playing wide receiver 2,700 miles from home instead of at Beaver Stadium. So when Penn State became an option again last December — and coach James Franklin called to ask, “What do I have to do to get you?” — Al Dotson grabbed the phone and declared, “He’s coming to Penn State. He’s coming.”
That call led to a freshman year in which Dotson blossomed into one of Penn State’s offensive surprises. He became the team’s first true freshman in four years to start at receiver, converted 67 percent of his receptions for first downs and made a crucial fourth-down catch to jumpstart the win over Iowa. Further, Dotson learned to play a new position in a week and took over as the starter.
Franklin called Dotson one of the team’s more natural receivers, comparing him to Jerry Rice, and quarterback Trace McSorley valued the freshman’s poised routes and reliable hands.
Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne said that the coaches “knew we had something” during August training camp. And as the season progressed, Dotson just kept getting more right in practice.
“Eventually we said to ourselves, ‘We have to find a way to get this guy on the field,’” Rahne said.
Meanwhile, Al and Robin Dotson sat thankfully at Beaver Stadium, surrounded by the Jahan Dotson Fan Club of Nazareth.
“We really, really wanted him to stay home,” Al Dotson said.
‘Yeah, he shocked me’
Al Dotson watched a television piece last year about former Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, whose parents left the Bronx, N.Y., and settled in Coplay. For the Dotsons, that story held familiar notes.
They left East Orange, N.J., 10 years ago, seeking to get out from under the drugs and crime that surrounded them. They liked Nazareth, where Jahan began playing football for the Upper Nazareth Clippers, and quickly built a home.
At Nazareth, Dotson became an all-state football player and track athlete, winning the PIAA 3A long-jump title as a sophomore. College coaches, including former Penn State assistant Josh Gattis, loved his elite athletic ability and receiving craft. In fact, at the Fiesta Bowl last year, Gattis said that Dotson “was very high on our board.”
“But the recruiting process doesn’t always go your way,” Gattis said before the bowl game. Dotson had committed to UCLA in September 2017 after visiting the campus. His parents, well…
“My wife and I were totally caught off guard,” Al Dotson said. “But it’s his career, his life, and you have to stand behind him, you know what I mean? But yeah, he shocked me.”
Then UCLA fired coach Jim Mora during a 6-7 season and hired Chip Kelly. At that point, Penn State revisited Dotson’s recruiting, and Franklin made his phone call. The coach had a bonus pitch: a shared family story.
“I think Saquon Barkley had a big part in [Dotson’s recruiting],” Franklin said. “For a kid in [the Lehigh Valley], they’re basically five minutes from each other, to see Saquon Barkley come here and thrive in so many areas, it just made sense.”
The first-down receiver
With their son playing closer to home, the Dotsons made frequent trips to State College last summer to watch practice, where Dotson became Franklin’s buzzworthy player. Dotson led the offense in touchdowns during camp, and Franklin pulled aside Dotson’s father to say, “I knew he was good, but I didn’t know he was this good.”
“In the recruiting process, it’s always hard, but once [players] show up, typically very few of them are what you thought,” Franklin said. “They’re either better than you thought or they’re a year away.”
Dotson was the former. Franklin intended to play Dotson for four games, allowing him to retain his redshirt season, but circumstances changed that. Penn State sustained some injuries at receiver (notably to starter Juwan Johnson) and had issues with dropped passes. Meanwhile, Dotson “just kept showing up,” Rahne said.
The receiver caught his first pass against Indiana, a 10-yarder to convert a first down. That began a season-long theme of Dotson moving the chains.
His first five catches went for first downs. In all, Dotson converted first downs on eight of his 12 receptions. That included conversions of two third-down and two fourth-down plays, none bigger than his catch against Iowa.
With Penn State trailing 12-0, and the offense moving fitfully, Dotson scooped a ball thrown toward his back foot for a 15-yard gain on 4th and 3. That led to a momentum-changing touchdown, helping Penn State to a 30-24 win over the Hawkeyes. The catch resonated in Penn State’s locker room for a while.
“We’re in a generation where you see guys try to make catches look sexier now than they are,” Franklin said. “They one-hand balls they should catch with two. The great ones, like Jerry Rice, they make the tough catches look easy. That’s what Jahan does. Literally there never seems like there’s a ball that’s outside of his reach.”
‘It was beautiful to see’
With Johnson injured and Dotson surging, the coaches made a decision in November. Dotson, who had played slot receiver behind redshirt freshman K.J. Hamler, moved to Johnson’s outside spot, learning the position in a week. Against Wisconsin on Nov. 10, Dotson became Penn State’s first true freshman to start at wide receiver since Saeed Blacknall in 2014.
Such a position change required Dotson to fast-track his understanding of routes, leverage and downfield blocking. Dotson exceled in his new role, catching seven passes for 119 yards in the last three games.
One of those games was at Rutgers, where a huge group of Dotson’s extended family from Nazareth was quite noticeable. That moment made the years of commuting worth it for Dotson’s parents, who both work at Verizon (Robin for 32 years, Al for 25).
“That Rutgers stadium was full of people from Nazareth,” Al Dotson said. “They embraced Jahan like no other. It was beautiful to see.”
The next step for Dotson is to add strength to his 5-11, 170-pound frame without losing speed. “Jahan is one of those guys who never seems like he’s running, but he runs by people,” Franklin said.
This will be Dotson’s first tour through Penn State’s winter conditioning, and Franklin wants the receiver to approach it with the same vigor he did his freshman season.
“Usually, there’s something that holds these guys up: physically, mentally, emotionally,” Franklin said. “And for him, it all seems to come pretty naturally. The exciting thing is, what’s he going to be like when he gets stronger and more explosive?”
WHO: Penn State vs. Kentucky
WHEN: 1 p.m. Jan. 1
WHERE: Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Fla.
RADIO: WAEB AM-790