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Jahan Dotson Is the 2021 Penn State Football Story in More Ways Than One

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Jahan Dotson is the story, because Jahan Dotson is always the story.

On Saturday night he was the story because 11 receptions, three touchdowns and 242 yards receiving (a Penn State single-game record) don’t go overlooked. In fact, it was such a performance that Penn State walked away from Maryland with a feel good 31-14 win despite struggling on offense for effectively the entire game.

Without Dotson, the Nittany Lions lose. It’s not really more complicated than that. His performance erased the potential result on the field and much of the narrative off of it.

Dotson is so good that his performances have turned extraordinary into normal. He is silky smooth, fast, effective and lethal. Dotson has been written about so many times before that, much like Saquon Barkley, you start to run out of ways to say the same things over and over again. Dotson is a perfect storm of skill. He has DaeSean Hamilton’s feet, Allen Robinson’s hands, Chris Godwin’s craftiness and a touch of Bobby Engram’s “it” factor. He is a little bit of everything, and the result is an unassuming 6-foot-1 game changing threat. Penn State has won games simply on the merits of having an outstanding defense and Jahan Dotson.

His first touchdown on Saturday showcased his feet, a route run so sharply that his defender was left twisted in a heap far behind.

His second showcased his hands, a leaping grab in the cool Maryland air.

His third showcased his speed, an 86-yard catch-and-run through the heart of College Park. Nothing for miles was as fast as him, and he knew it.

In many ways, Dotson has turned into the receiver he has always wanted to be. Players dream about nights like the one Dotson had on Saturday. A player can always hone his craft, but Dotson is a walking paycheck and the product of what happens when you simply don’t stop working. To his credit, this was not always the case, at least not to this extent. He could have gone pro this offseason, but he didn’t. The ensuing months of work have likely shortened his wait come draft night, and likely added a few zeros to his first deposit.

“I just felt like he had an opportunity to come in this year with Sean [Clifford] coming back with a lot of momentum and take it to another level,” Penn State coach James Franklin said after the game. “Go from an obvious draft choice to hopefully a high round draft choice.

“Each week our plan is to get Jahan Dotson as many touches as possible.”

This is the moment when Jahan Dotson becomes a bigger story than simply one encompassing Saturday night.

Because Dotson is – by a mile – Penn State’s best offensive player, but that may not have been the case on other Penn State teams in recent memory.

That is ultimately the challenge Franklin faces at Penn State if he does turn down overtures from other schools and returns next season. He has to find and develop more Jahan Dotsons.

The idea of Jahan Dotson — a game changing player — is what made Penn State’s 2016 and 2017 teams so good. At every offensive position there were objectively great players that could have done — more or less — what Dotson did on Saturday.

And they did it, because they are known by their first names. There was Saquon, Mike, DaeSean, Chris, Miles, Juwan and Trace. Those teams were loaded from top to bottom. If anything, their collective depth prevented anyone — Barkley aside — from putting up numbers like Dotson did on Saturday. Much like Allen Robinson under Bill O’Brien, Dotson is an eraser for moments like Saturday night when Penn State’s offense stalls. He masks issues and makes up for deficiencies from sheer volume of production alone.

But those O’Brien years were about survival. The Franklin years have been about bigger and better things.

And while Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith are both quality receivers and Theo Johnson and Brenton Strange have shown flashes as draft-hopeful tight ends, none of them put together resumes — or the same consistency — that would rival many of their predecessors.

There is nothing wrong with this, but it is not a mistake Penn State’s issues offensively are in some part related to the fact the Nittany Lions have several good players but really only one elite option.

A lot of this is simply the way of the world because most college football teams are not stacked with elite talent, that is simply how it works. But the creation of those elite players is an interesting challenge for Franklin and company and begs the question: are great players born, or are they developed?

So let’s ask. Is it development and hard work, or is it something you’re born with? In the end it’s both, but is there a defining ratio between the two?

“A few [are born that way]” linebacker Ellis Brooks said on Saturday. “I mean, they still work hard. But you got your freaks that you see. Micah [Parsons] and [Jayson} Oweh. Even Jahan. He’s natural and smooth but he’s still one of the hardest workers in the building and a great person. So he’s very well rounded. And I think that’s the reason why he’s having the success he’s having right now.”

Parsons and Oweh are a great example of the luck of the genetics draw, which brings your eye to linebacker Brandon Smith, who is a physical specimen in his own right. No amount of work makes you taller or born with certain gifts. You simply were snapped into the world that way, and there’s no way around that fact.

“Thank God for having me come out and looking like this and having this type of body,” Smith said with a laugh. “Definitely around where I live there’s nobody really my size. My little brother, he shot up. So I mean, really, it’s all genetics and stuff like that as far as the God-given ability. But really, as far as working hard and the ratio that one is basically genes or genetics and then you can go ahead and max out the scale for hard work.”

Whatever the answer is, quarterback Sean Clifford sure is glad Dotson has it. Clifford completed 27 passes on Saturday night with 11 of those going to Dotson. He’s a safety net for an offense that sometimes needs a lifeboat. So was Dotson born this way or developed into it? Clifford doesn’t care.

“It’s tough to say with Jahan,” Clifford said regarding being born or developed. “Because he worked so hard, but he’s pretty athletic. I don’t have that athletic ability [laughs] so probably a little bit of both. But, you know, his work ethic is unmatched and he’s a role model for a lot of the younger guys.”

Dotson is unequivocally a hard worker; there’s no denying that. It’s also no mistake that he follows in the footsteps of the likes of DaeSean Hamilton who left a receivers room with a legacy of hard work. Dotson is a product of his own effort as much as he is a long combination of genes and DNA turning him into what he is today. Nevertheless if work was all it took, there would be a lot more Jahan Dotsons. And there aren’t.

“I feel like it’s both,” corner Tariq Castro-Field said. “If you say you’re a guy that’s born great, I guess you stop working. You’re gonna decline or not even get better. So it’s a happy medium like, you can’t just ever be satisfied.”

Great players must know that they’re great though, right? Dotson can’t be surprised by his own play, because great players are confident and false confidence is rarely rewarded. So when did he know he could be this good? How long has he felt that he can become who he has become?

“For a while, I guess,” Dotson said with a smile. “My dad literally is always telling me how good I am and just working towards that goal to be one of the greatest in Penn State history. To be one of the greatest wide receivers every time you step on the field. We’ve been working towards that goal ever since I was a little kid. And I just credit everyone around me. People push me every single day, my family, the guys in this locker room, people back home, pushing me to be who I am today.

“I’ve been playing football ever since I was like 3 years old. So literally, those long nights being in the park playing catch with my cousin. You realize those things when you’re kind of making plays like I did tonight. All those days they paid off tremendously.”

In the end this is why Dotson is the story for more than just tonight, why he has been the story all season. In the overarching universe of Penn State football, the challenge is to find, develop and have as many Jahan Dotsons as you can. Penn State is an okay team because it has one Jahan Dotson, it could be a great team if it had more. If it did, it could very well be undefeated with the defense it currently boasts.

This all is perhaps obvious, the fact personnel and development is at the heart of college football success. Nevertheless it’s at the crux of whatever happens next in the James Franklin era and the larger question at hand he faces now. The question – if the likes of Drew Allar, Nicholas Singleton, Kaden Saunders, Dani Dennis-Sutton and company can turn themselves into their versions of Dotson in ways that Dotson’s own teammates haven’t.

If they can, Franklin and Penn State could see brighter days ahead. If they can’t, then perhaps the sunny beaches of LA will see those days instead.