Penn State's Jahan Dotson Takes Charge
Penn State's Jahan Dotson was at home in April, watching the NFL draft with his parents, waiting to hear former teammate KJ Hamler's name. At the same time, he threw tennis balls in the air, wrapping each hand around them 100 consecutive times.
It was a quiet moment that combined Dotson's two loves, his family and football, with a pressing need to improve even during downtime. Because the Penn State receiver knew that, when he returned to State College, he would have to grow a bit louder.
"I've been trying to work into that leadership role because I know this room is basically mine," Dotson said. "I have to take complete ownership of this room."
Once a freshman receiver thrust into Penn State's starting lineup, Dotson has become the veteran presence of a once-more rebuilding group. The receivers lost Hamler to the NFL, two former teammates (Justin Shorter and Mac Hippenhammer) to transfers and former position coach Gerad Parker to West Virginia.
With its fourth coach in four years, and just one receiver (Dotson) who caught more than 10 passes last year, the group knows it has a narrative to change. Dotson, now a junior, has made that his mission for this new preseason.
"During these workouts, we have to prove we're the best group on the team," Dotson said, "because a lot of people have us as one of the weaker spots on the team. So we just have to come out every day and prove to everyone that we're one of the best groups on the field every time we step on the field."
Dotson, who caught 27 passes last year alongside Hamler, likely will replace Hamler in the slot position. Dotson played that position as a freshman but shifted roles when Penn State needed help outside. He likes the extra space the slot affords but is looking forward to moving across the field in offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca's scheme.
In March, Dotson and teammate Trent Gordon spent time training in Texas, where Gordon is from, before the COVID-19 pandemic closed Penn State's campus. At home, Dotson turned his training internal, with help from his family and an old friend.
Dotson and his father Al trained together in the basement during the quarantine. Dotson said that his father developed a strong bench press. During down moments, Dotson did his tennis-ball drills to sharpen his hand-eye coordination: 100 catches with each hand.
In the absence of spring football, Dotson led his receivers on a weekly study of different routes. He asked them to send videos of their progress. And Dotson joined former Nazareth (Pa.) High teammate Anthony Harris, who will be a freshman quarterback at Maine this season, for throwing drills at a nearby turf field.
Concurrently, Dotson tried to be more active during receiver meetings, even though it was from afar. He studied the offense as quickly as he could in order to answer questions from younger receivers. And he tried to develop a larger presence at his position.
"I tell Jahan all the time, he's got to step up sometimes," Hamler said before the Cotton Bowl, knowing that being outwardly vocal is not Dotson's style. Dotson has tried to change that, notably with new receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield.
Stubblefield, who played at Purdue, and Dotson share similar physical traits. Stubblefield became the Big Ten's career-receptions leader at 5-11, 175 pounds. Dotson is 5-11, 185, though Stubblefield called him "much more athletic than I ever was."
"He can do some things naturally; I was more of a technical skill guy," Stubblefield. "He has athletic ability, and to put the skill on top of it, makes it a great combination."
Dotson said he's eager to learn from Stubblefield, his third position coach at Penn State, while also helping to smooth the new coach's transition. So the receiver took every chance he could to talk with Stubblefield on subjects from route-running to video games.
"He's always wanting to help me any way he can, not only on the football field," Dotson said of Stubblefield. "He's trying to look out for my family, look out for me. It means a lot."
As did the time at home this year. In spring 2019, Dotson's mother Robin was diagnosed with cancer. She underwent treatments through parts of last season. Dotson said this week that his mother is doing well.
Dotson hadn't been home much over the past five years. He spent his junior year at a prep school in New Jersey and didn't get home often while at Penn State. Being with them this past spring was valuable, allowing him to return whole to Penn State.
"This [quarantine period] was definitely a blessing in disguise," Dotson said. "With everything going on, it was a hard time to handle. But waking up next to your family is cool."
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