Penn State receiver Jahan Dotson ran his fastest time ever in the 40-yard dash this offseason, a 4.33 that he established as an important personal goal.
Actually, Dotson has driven himself to get faster since the 2019 Minnesota game and the moment he had broken free in the open field with a chance to score a late touchdown. Being tracked from behind in a 31-26 loss lingered in his memory, and Dotson's teammates wouldn't let him forget, either.
"That was something that I was really focused on getting better at going into my last year here," Dotson said. "What really pushed me, to be honest, was the guys on the team. I remember when [receiver] KJ [Hamler] was here. He never let live me down the Minnesota moment. So literally getting faster, being faster, that was always something I was trying to prove to everyone."
Dotson, Penn State's standout senior receiver, enters the 2021 season with a full tank of confidence. He's faster and stronger than ever at Penn State and just finished what he called "probably my best camp so far."
After leading the Big Ten in receiving yards (884), yards after catch (390) and receiving first downs (38) last season, Dotson is poised to become the marquee player in Penn State's new offense under coordinator Mike Yurcich. He wants to prove that by never being caught from behind again.
Dotson always has been fast. He was a Pennsylvania state long-jump champ at Nazareth Area High and ran on the school's 400-meter team that won state gold. At Penn State, he holds the single-season record for punt-return average (24.6 yards), largely because of his speed.
But Dotson wanted more. So this offseason he trained with Penn State's performance staff specifically in running the 40-yard dash. His time of 4.33 seconds ranks No. 2 in program history among wide receivers, behind only Hamler.
"I knew I had it in me," he said. "... I always knew I was that fast, so it’s kind of just always the way I’ve been playing. My dad, ever since I was a young kid, he told me, 'You’ve got tremendous speed, so use it to your ability.' I feel like this camp I’ve really been focusing on just playing with speed all the time, just controlling my speed and then knowing when to use it and when not to use it."
Head coach James Franklin has noticed Dotson improve physically in other areas as well. Franklin long has called Dotson "silky," the kind of receiver who plays almost an understated game.
With more size (he's 184 pounds) and strength, Dotson can be an even bigger game-breaker this year.
"He's just that guy who has tremendous body control and made everything look easy," Franklin said. "... He's subtle with his moves, but now that he's more explosive, stronger and bigger, I think that’s got a chance to translate to more explosive plays for us, which I think is really important."
Using those qualities, however, will rely on another critical factor. Quarterback Sean Clifford returns as Penn State's third-year starter, and a rare third-year captain, with less freight and a fresh approach, Dotson said.
The two have had a strong rapport since Dotson joined the starting lineup as a freshman in 2018. Now, Dotson said of Clifford, "This is the best I've ever seen him [play]," noting one significant improvement.
"The biggest area I feel like is decision-making," Dotson said. "Coach Yurcich, when he came in, his point of emphasis was, Sean is such a vocal leader, such a great leader on the field, and he felt like Sean had just too much on his plate. He was worrying about too much. And I feel like he’s done a great job this offseason where’s just taken the load off his shoulders and he’s just playing ball now. And that’s how he got here. …. That’s literally how he got here, just playing ball."
Dotson had the opportunity after last season to reroute his training toward the NFL Combine and an early departure from Penn State. Instead, he and other key veterans decided to return, partly because they didn't want last season to be their final memory of Penn State.
Heading into Week 1 at Wisconsin, Dotson remains even more convinced that he made the right choice.
"I love the decision I made," he said. "Because this team is like no other I’ve been on. So I know that, if I left, that I would have missed out on just a great opportunity to go fight with the people I love."