SAUBER: Jahan Dotson's new mentality helps him dominate this season for Penn State

JON SAUBER
Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson (5) celebrates after returning a punt for a touchdown during the  third quarter of NCAA college football game against Michigan State in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020. Penn State won 39-24. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Scanning the Penn State wide receiver depth chart at the beginning of the year would've led to one reasonable conclusion. There was talent, but a lot of uncertainty.

Eight weeks into the season, the group is no longer a question. As a matter of fact, it's been the only answer more often than not for a Penn State offense that has struggled to find traction.

The team's leading receiver — junior Jahan Dotson — has established himself as a bright spot for Penn State football this season and continued to shine in Saturday afternoon's 39-24 win over the Michigan State Spartans.

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Will Levis took notice of Dotson and the other receivers' growth after the victory.

"We never really had a doubt that we had the guys that can step up and make plays for us," Levis said. "It's been great to see the flashes that we've seen from our receivers throughout the season, and it just goes to show just how dangerous we're going to be in the future."

Emerging as a go-to guy: Dotson, in particular, has broken out for the Nittany Lions this year. He was a solid option out of the slot last season who could make a play on occasion, but was still well behind K.J. Hamler and Pat Freiermuth in the pecking order for targets. He showed some slipperiness in the open field, but nothing that would make anyone believe a true No. 1 wide receiver was his ceiling. It was easy to call the then-sophomore a good slot option who could be reliable.

With Hamler off to the NFL and Freiermuth out for the rest of the season with an injury, Dotson has made one thing very clear. He's not just a steady option — he's a go-to target and a future NFL player.

The junior receiver is leading the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns with 38, 587 and six, respectively. He's been dominant at times, including Saturday when he caught eight passes for 108 yards. The icing on the cake for Dotson was when he showed off his wheels on an 81-yard punt return touchdown.

"My teammates always joke around with me and say I'm not fast or it doesn't look like I'm really running," Dotson said with a laugh. "On that punt return I had to show them a little bit that I've got a little kick in me, a little speed in me. That was a good chance to get loose."

Relationship with Clifford: Part of the reason for his success is the relationship he's developed with starting quarterback Sean Clifford. Clifford, a redshirt junior, has a trust in his top option that allows him to take chances.

Clifford can throw a ball that most receivers only have a 50/50 shot to come down with knowing his star receiver has what it takes to bring it down.

"We trust Jahan 1-on-1," Clifford said. "Every time the ball is in the air, he's going to make a play on it. I'm just happy with how he keeps progressing. He's a hell of a player. I have all the trust in the world in him."

The quarterback's trust in Dotson can grow from their relationship together, but it's reinforced by the wide receiver showing what he's capable of on the field. He's made clear strides this season in several aspects of his game.

All-around improvement: He's became an elite route runner after being a great one last season. He's improved his catching ability in the middle of the field and in contested catch situations. And he's improved as an athlete, reaching gears he didn't show he had in his arsenal.

But for Dotson, none of those improvements come without his biggest point of growth.

"I've actually grown in a lot of areas," Dotson said. "One, specifically, is my mentality this year. Just knowing that I was stepping into a bigger role, and knowing that I was basically going to be that guy for our team. ... Every game, just kill, just dominate. That's one thing that's been big on me this year. Make sure every time you step on the field, dominate. That's basically what I've been living by these past couple games, this season. And it's been showing."

NFL future: Dotson's expanded skill set has brought his future more into focus. He's made the NFL a realistic possibility for himself and brought it to the forefront. He was once a near-lock to spend four years at Penn State while maintaining steady production, but now instead finds himself near an inflection point. He can return next season and try to build off a great junior year, or he can take his talents to the next level and enter the 2021 NFL Draft.

For now, he hasn't thought much about that. He's focusing on the present, and taking his Penn State career one day at a time.

"Right now I'm just enjoying every moment I get with my brothers here, just trying to get better here every single day," Dotson said. "Basically, just go out and cherish the moment. Just living in the moment, that's one thing I live by. Never get too ahead of yourself."