It was an offseason of question marks for the Penn State wide receivers.
Could new position coach Taylor Stubblefield help this group stop dropping passes?
Will the true freshmen be able to make an impact?
Were Daniel George and Cam Sullivan-Brown ready to take the next step?
How would the offense replace the production of KJ Hamler?
None of these questions had clear answers. We're starting to be able to fill in some blanks, much is still unknown. But amidst all of the questions, there was one common refrain that everyone kept coming back to.
At least they have Jahan Dotson.
Dotson's journey to this point very nearly took place outside of Happy Valley. Though he was a target for the coaching staff early on in the 2018 recruiting cycle, he seemed to fall out of favor a bit as things went on. After all, Penn State wasn't exactly hurting for pass-catchers in the class, with commitments from five-star receiver Justin Shorter, five-star all-purpose back Ricky Slade, four-star tight ends Zack Kuntz and Pat Freiermuth, and four-star receiver Daniel George.
As the early signing day window approached, it seemed that the staff was still focused on four-star legacy Solomon Enis as its top remaining receiver target. But when Enis turned his focus to staying on the west coast, things between Penn State and Dotson picked up once more. Now committed to UCLA, Dotson was in a tough situation of his own, deciding if he still wanted to go across the country to play for a different head coach than he committed to (Chip Kelly was hired as the team's new head coach a little less than a month before the early signing period). In the end, Dotson decided to stay close to home and flip his commitment to James Franklin's Nittany Lions and sign his letter of intent on the same day.
Unexpectedly, Dotson saw the field right away as a true freshman. He wasn't a focus of the offense, but he carved out an early role as a reliable target when it came to moving the sticks (10 of 13 receptions turned into first downs). His sophomore campaign (2019) saw an uptick in his production, though KJ Hamler and Pat Freiermuth were the established focal points. Still, while defenses mostly focused their attention on stopping No. 1 and No. 87, Dotson went about his business and ended up with 488 yards on 27 receptions. He was seemingly always a big-play waiting to happen, averaging 18.07 yards per catch thanks to catches-and-runs like this one.
Fast-forward back to our current timeline. We haven't seen a Penn State receiver be truly given the chance to be an alpha-type player against Ohio State since the days of Chris Godwin posterizing future first-round Buckeye cornerbacks. Last Saturday, however, Dotson was given the chance to show that he's not only ready to ascend to the top tier of pass-catchers in the conference, but that he may already be there. From breaking ankles on his routes to simply bullying his way into winning contested catches, the junior from Nazareth, PA announced to the country in his team's loss to Ohio State that he's ready to lead the Penn State offense by example.
Through two weeks, Dotson has been targeted a team leading 18 times. He has 12 receptions on those targets to again lead the team. The remaining six targets were all passes that I charted as "uncatchable", meaning that he has caught every pass he could have thus far. He's turned those 12 grabs into 238 total yards (19.83 yards per catch) with four touchdowns. To put it simply, he is establishing himself as the next great Nittany Lion wideout.
In this 2020 season, that is as important as ever. While the offense is still finding its footing thanks to (gestures to the world) all of this, having certain players you know you can lean on is of utmost importance. Sean Clifford knows he has that in tight end Pat Freiermuth, but there were legitimate questions about how Hamler's production would be replaced. It's clear now that Dotson is more than capable of picking up the slack. Not only that, but he is a perfect fit for what we know of the Kirk Ciarrocca offense. Sudden in and out of his breaks, reliable hands, and smooth in his ability to find soft spots in the defense, he's the ideal weapon in the run-pass-option system the new Nittany Lion coordinator specializes in. As this group continues to come together, games like Saturday won't be the outliers for Dotson, they'll be the norm.
At least they have Jahan Dotson, indeed.