A Diamond in the Rough: Penn State’s New No. 1 Receiver
New season, same story: Ohio State defeats Penn State and remains the premier program in the Big Ten football conference.
To say it’s been a challenging season for Penn State football would be an understatement. The loss to Ohio State is just one of many blows for the Nittany Lions to add to the list. The opting out of Micah Parsons. The loss of Journey Brown. A brutal, controversial defeat to Indiana to begin the year. The COVID-19 pandemic wiping out the possibility of fans in Beaver Stadium. The season-ending injury to Noah Cain. And now, the fourth loss in a row to division rival Ohio State, sending the Nittany Lions to 0-2 for the first time since 2012.
Life isn’t easy for Penn State football right now. But in all the mire and haze, there is always something positive to look at. Something to bring a ray of hope in the darkened clouds of despair. Saturday, that ray of hope was Jahan Dotson.
Question marks have plagued the Penn State offense all season. The backfield question is the most stark. Will Devyn Ford be able to take on the workhorse role with Brown and Cain out? Saturday’s evidence wasn’t hopeful. Ford was held to just 36 yards on the day, and the Nittany Lions rushing attack was kept at just 44 yards total. Needless to say, the Penn State ground game was absolutely shut down.
Another question mark? The receiving corps. KJ Hamler was the go-to guy for Penn State in 2019. But his decision to leave school early for the NFL draft left Penn State’s pass-catching in doubt. Who would become WR1 for the Nittany Lions?
Of course, the return of 6-foot-5-inch, 285-pound tight end Pat Freiermuth helped, especially in short-yardage or goal-line situations. But the speedy receiver streaking down the field and making insane catches? What Hamler did in 2019? That still needed to be filled. Who would do it?
Saturday night, we found our answer: the 5-foot-11-inch, 182-pound wideout from Nazareth, Pennsylvania named Jahan Dotson. And head coach James Franklin has taken notice.
“Over the last number of years, we’ve always had that one guy that teams would worry about, whether it was KJ [Hamler] or [Chris] Godwin or Mike Gesicki,” Franklin said. “It’s good to see Jahan stepping up now.”
Coming into the season, Dotson was the most likely candidate to fill Hamler’s shoes, as the now-junior was the most experienced of the young receiver room, totaling 40 career receptions, 693 career yards and five career touchdowns: not eye-popping numbers, but nothing to sneeze at either.
But in 2020, Dotson has done more than has been asked of him.
Dotson first showed flashes of being Penn State’s new WR1 against Indiana, netting 94 yards and a touchdown on four catches. Saturday, Dotson fully stepped into that role, catching eight balls for 144 yards and three touchdowns. All three of those marks are single-game bests for Dotson, who, in a shortened season, is well on his way to smashing his previous yearly highs.
For Dotson, a chance to shine is just what he’s been waiting for.
“I can make plays when I have the ball in my hand,” Dotson said. “That’s my goal every time I touch the ball.”
Dotson’s defining moment came in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. With Penn State driving down the field, trailing 31-13 and facing third-and-17 from the 42-yard line, quarterback Sean Clifford threw up a prayer to the left sideline, and Dotson, in tight coverage, came down with it—one-handed.
The 37-yard haul set up the Nittany Lions at the Buckeyes’ 21. And on the next play, lightning struck twice. Clifford found Dotson for a 21-yard score on the left side, coming on yet another one-handed grab. Two consecutive plays, two explosive, single-handed snags.
How’d he do it? According to Dotson, it’s all about mentality.
“I approach that [jump ball] as a million dollars in the air,” Dotson said. “Every time the ball is in the air, it’s a chance to make a name for yourself, a chance to put the team on your back.”
Put the team on his back he did. Dotson’s three scores accounted for 18 of Penn State’s 25 points.
Despite being the Nittany Lions’ standout player on Saturday, Dotson remained humble, regarding his spectacular one-handed catches as errors to be fixed.
“I have to change that in practice,” Dotson said. “We’re told that it’s two hands every time you have the opportunity to catch the ball.”
But for Dotson, there’s more to it than just the football aspect. He’s playing for recognition, and for the respect of his teammates and coaches. But he’s also playing for his grandmother.
Dotson revealed that his grandmother, Gloria Bigelow, died in April, and that his relationship with her was incredibly close—like that of a second parent.
“I feel like I can bring her to these games,” Dotson said. “She’s going to be right on my side every single game.”
Bringing her to the game is not just metaphorical. Dotson said that he owns a t-shirt with his grandmother on it, and he brings it to every game, taking the time to have an internal conversation with her before the game begins.
Although the Nittany Lions fell on Saturday night, for Dotson, this was a performance that he, his team and his grandmother could be proud of.
“My family tells me ‘be patient’ all the time,” Dotson said. “It’s finally paid off.”
Uncertainty continues for Penn State football in 2020. But the question mark next to “WR1” can be removed.
DJ Bauer is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email email@example.com.
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Senior / Broadcast Journalism