Jahan Dotson loved everything about his official visit to UCLA in the summer of 2017 — the Southern California lifestyle, the warm weather — and told his parents that’s where he intended to play college football.
A few weeks after his Sept. 4 commitment, however, Dotson began having second thoughts. UCLA was about 2,700 miles from his home in Nazareth, Pa., meaning that the members of his extremely close family would have a difficult time following him in person.
“It just kept ringing on my mind,” said the All-Big Ten wide receiver, whose NFL prospects have been gaining steam. “Something kept coming up and it just didn’t feel right that I wasn’t staying home, wasn’t going to Penn State.”
His parents outwardly expressed their support of their son’s choice, but the decision was “very shocking to me and my wife,” said his father, Al Dotson.
“He knew it, but being that he was our child, and being that we’re his parents, we supported him,” Dotson said. “It was his decision. We felt that in-state, his family, his grandmother and grandfather on both sides, his cousins on both sides, could get to the game. At his age, he didn’t see that.”
The change process soon began. Penn State head coach James Franklin never stopped recruiting him and stayed in contact with Dotson and his family. UCLA head coach Jim Mora was fired in mid-November, one game before the end of the regular season. A couple of Nittany Lion prospects withdrew their commitments, opening up scholarships.
Eventually, a talk among Franklin, then-wide receivers coach Josh Gaddis, and the Dotsons sealed the deal. Dotson flipped on Dec. 20, national signing day, and committed to Penn State.
“My dad asked, ‘Does he still have a scholarship here, coach?’ ” Dotson said. “And coach Franklin was like, ‘He’s always had a scholarship here. We just kind of lost communication.’ Before coach Franklin could even finish, my dad was like, ‘He’s coming, coach.’ So that was pretty much how that went, and I haven’t looked back since. And it’s been every bit of great.”
Said Franklin: “He’s a guy that was thinking about leaving home and going far away and we were able to convince him, and specifically his parents, to stay close to home. It’s worked out really well for him and for us.”
After leading the Big Ten in receiving yards last year with 884, Dotson has generated big-time numbers again this season — a conference-best 43 catches, 494 yards, six touchdowns — and has climbed to an elite level in the minds of NFL scouts. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranked Dotson as the No. 8 overall prospect in the 2022 NFL Draft and the top wide receiver, calling him “an explosive wideout … on pace for a spectacular season.”
It’s not just about the numbers he has amassed that’s made him one of the biggest names in college football this season. It’s what he does off the field as a leader, and his love for his team and his family.
Dotson has been there for his family during a recent stretch of adversity. His mother, Robin, was hospitalized with cancer in 2019 and her cancer returned this past summer. His grandmother died last year. He returned home after the pandemic shut down Penn State in March 2020 and remained there until nearly the end of the summer.
“It was pretty rough in that situation, but I feel like it made me basically the man I am right now, it just made me stronger,” he said. “Being with my family really helped, getting to see them every day. I wasn’t used to having that while I’ve been in college. So being with them, just talking with them every single day, being around my dad — he pushes me like no other — working out with them, it really helped me get through the pandemic.”
Dotson said his mother is doing well after her most recent bout and is working from home.
“My mom’s a fighter,” he said. “My mom’s never going to quit. She’s always going to do her best to prevent adversity. So it’s been tough but I’ve just been alongside of her every single step of the way, doing what I can for her, helping her along the way.”
Tom Falzone, Dotson’s coach at Nazareth Area High School, said the player has “an amazing family, and an amazing supporting cast at home.”
“The most important thing is just raising him the right way,” Falzone said. “When you talk to Jahan, he’s a great individual. He is so respected in this community of Nazareth. He does it right off the field and that’s something … you have to have that put in there somehow and it came from his parents, it came from his upbringing.
“The hard work and pushing him and knowing you can get at this level and be at the next level, that’s another thing that he got, that drive that you must have to have success at that level. His mom is a little more quiet, kind of like he is. But that quiet confidence, I think that’s another thing they instilled in him and it’s just fun to see him flourish and do what he’s doing.”
Dotson said very little his freshman year, learning from the older receivers on the team like Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins and befriending fellow rookie KJ Hamler, a natural vocal leader. By his junior year, he was the elder statesman and his position coach, Taylor Stubblefield, challenged him to step up as a leader.
“He told me, ‘This is your room now, you have to take full control of it. Pretty much everything that everyone does in this room is a reflection of you,’ ” Dotson said. “So I took that pretty seriously. I talked to my dad about it and talked to coach Stubbs, pretty much developing being comfortable saying things that I usually wasn’t comfortable saying in front of the team.
“I’m not a very talkative guy, not a loud guy. So I’ve got to be comfortable with having those hard conversations with people.”
Once the football is kicked off, Dotson appears eminently comfortable. The work he put in during the offseason added weight — he now weighs 184 pounds — and strength and lowered his 40-yard dash time to 4.33 seconds. Franklin described his ball skills as “elite, maybe some of the best ball skills that I’ve ever been around.”
Falzone said Dotson’s work ethic goes back to high school when he would put in extra work after practice. He noted that while his player “didn’t always love the weight room,” he knew it would be a necessity at the next level.
“He knew he had to work to the next level and build himself up bigger to create that Big Ten body, hopefully a body that could play at the next level, too,” Falzone said. “So I think that’s been his drive, his focus. Coach Franklin has done a great job.”
Dotson is enjoying offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich’s work with the revamped Penn State attack, which he said “puts different guys in different positions to make crazy plays.” He loves the fact that he’s been asked to throw two passes, both completions, and jokes that he “hopefully has one more.”
Of course, defenses are now working overtime to keep Dotson from going off. He caught eight passes against Iowa but only for 48 yards as the Hawkeyes shut off the deep routes. But he said he’s perfectly fine with that, that it makes his teammates better.
“They get those 1-on-1 opportunities, and we have the guys that can beat 1-on-1 coverage. So it’s great when teams do that because we have other guys on the team that are capable of making plays.”
Talk like that is music to Al Dotson’s ears.
“Exactly, team first,” he said. “You can’t win without the team, he knows that. That is instilled in him. Team means we, not you. Even in high school, he never took the shine. Now in college, he doesn’t do all that hoopla, he doesn’t need it. From a kid, he’s never done it. He’s never been taught to do it because in the back of his mind, it’s team. If the team shines, we all shine.”
Dotson’s family has rented vans to Beaver Stadium, and they plan to do the same when Penn State plays at Maryland on Nov. 6. He loves that his family gets to watch his son in his home state, not on the other coast. And next year, it’s very like he’ll be watching Jahan on a Sunday in the NFL.