Penn State's Jahan Dotson took Big Ten awards season personally. The conference's leader in receiving yards (by nearly 200, in fact) was named to the all-conference third team.
That was a conversation topic among his teammates last week. Dotson said the vote "definitely motivated me." He needed one play to prove it.
Dotson turned a basic run-pass option, which required a simple hitch route on his part, 75 yards for a touchdown on Penn State's first snap Saturday against Illinois. The play established an offensive tone for the Lions' 56-21 victory and also reminded everyone how Dotson had become one of the Big Ten's premium playmakers this season.
Most everyone across the conference acknowledged how "quietly" Dotson became one if its best receivers. Which really isn't the case.
A three-year starter who upgraded his tools annually, Dotson took charge of the big-play role in Penn State's offense, from his three-touchdown game against Ohio State to his 81-yard punt return for a score against Michigan State to his two huge touchdown receptions against Illinois.
Dotson is responsible for six of Penn State's eight longest plays of the season (including the longest with his 75-yard score), leads the team in scoring (56 points) and is the program's first receiver with two 70-yard receptions in a game.
No wonder, then, that the junior from Nazareth, Pa., said Saturday night that his confidence "is at an all-time high right now."
"The thing I learned about myself is, I can make things happen," Dotson said. "I can make plays when the ball is in my hands."
And with that, Dotson left fans wondering whether they'll see him make plays for Penn State again. He's among a handful of intriguing Lions who face offseason choices about entering the NFL draft.
Penn State coach James Franklin has praised Dotson's ascendancy for three years while reminding that he hasn't reached his ceiling. Dotson reminded himself of that Saturday night as well.
At halftime against Illinois, Dotson had 183 yards receiving and was poised to shatter the Deon' Butler's single-game record of 216 (set in 2006). But as the Lions pulled away in the second half, Dotson caught just one more pass, finishing with 189 yards.
"I don't even know how many yards I had in the first half, but I was trying to double that in the second half," Dotson said. "So I think I still have so many parts of my game that I can improve on, just by working every single day, fine-tuning my game, perfecting my craft."
To quarterback Sean Clifford, Dotson has become a favored target, to which those 52 receptions attest. Last season, Clifford's big-play target was KJ Hamler, a receiver with whom he had a long relationship dating to their recruiting-camp days.
Once Hamler departed, Dotson sought to assume that role, within the offense and with the quarterback. "It's what people don't see," Clifford said.
Dotson spent the preseason and season asking Clifford to throw after practice, texting him, "constantly in me ear," the quarterback said.
"I just love the maturation process he's gone through from last year," Clifford said. "From a guy who was getting the ball, but not a ton, and then stepping into this key role now."
On the first play Saturday against Illinois, Clifford had a run-pass option, with Dotson as the throwing target. It's a simple hitch route, meant to be productive on first down, but Dotson turned it into a 75-yard score, the team's longest offensive play of the season.
"I didn't do anything on that," said Clifford, marveling at the touchdown Dotson produced.
Dotson proved plenty this season, from his big-play skills to maturing leadership to his pride in a position that took shots as the preseason weak link on Penn State's roster.
Dotson would be a vital offensive player, and national-award contender, for Penn State in 2021. If he chooses to return. After this season, that's clearly a decision.
"I never want to be complacent," he said. "I never want to get too comfortable with anything. There's still a lot for me to improve on, so many parts of my game I can improve on and get better."
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