The ball was snapped on fourth-and-4 at Indiana’s 30-yard line, and Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson took off on a shallow crossing route. Quarterback Sean Clifford kept his eyes downfield as he worked his way around the pocket, hoping to connect with a target instead of turning the ball over on a sack or an incompletion.
As Dotson sped toward the right sideline, Clifford’s eyes locked with the playmaker’s gaze, and the quarterback quickly tossed the ball roughly seven yards on the run. Once the ball hit Dotson’s hands, the wideout turned on his patented jets.
Dotson sped down the sideline. With one defender standing between him and the end zone, Dotson weaved inside to set up a bulldozing block by tight end Brenton Strange. Dotson reached paydirt and put the Nittany Lions up, 21-0, in the third quarter of a 24-point Penn State win.
That score was Dotson’s second of the game, following an impressive 8-yard grab in the back of the end zone in the early minutes of the second quarter.
Clifford, Dotson’s starting QB for the past three years, has grown accustomed to those highlight-reel moments with the wideout during their time together in State College, Pa.
“It’s one of those things where Jahan just makes special plays,” Clifford told Pro Football Network. “He’s a special player.”
Special was what the Washington Commanders were looking for in the first round when they selected Dotson, listed as 5-foot-11 and 184 pounds, with the 16th overall pick on Thursday in the 2022 NFL Draft. The Commanders are hoping Dotson, 22, can bring out the best in Carson Wentz this season and beyond, and vice versa.
To understand how Dotson can make Wentz better, PFN reached out to both of his Penn State starting QBs, Clifford and Trace McSorley, to get an idea of what the wideout brings to Washington.
Jahan Dotson: The Natural
Dotson arrived at Penn State in 2018 as part of a touted recruiting class that also featured future NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Micah Parsons. Despite his status as a four-star recruit, Dotson was forced to bide his time on the bench behind his older teammates.
As a true freshman, Dotson was initially buried on the depth chart behind future NFL receivers K.J. Hamler and Juwan Johnson. While he didn’t see much action early in his freshman season, Dotson made a quick impression on McSorley, a redshirt senior quarterback who was destined for the NFL.
“The first thing I noticed right away was how natural he was at the receiver position,” McSorley said. “He was super smooth. … And then how natural his hands were just catching the ball. Some guys you just see, and it looks super simple, easy and natural, and he was just one of those guys who made things look super easy.”
Clifford was a redshirt freshman when Dotson joined the Nittany Lions, and the two worked together early on with the second-team offense in practice. Like McSorley, Clifford immediately noticed how effortless Dotson made everything look in workouts.
“He’s just a natural athlete,” Clifford said. “One of the first times I was throwing with him — it was on a weekend — just kind of getting some extra reps in, and he was throwing the ball back to me the same way I was throwing it to him. If you ever watch him throw, you can just tell how natural of an athlete he is. He was throwing it like a quarterback, and then running a route like one of the best receivers I’ve seen.”
It didn’t take too long for Dotson to show off his skills on Saturdays at Beaver Stadium. As the 2018 season went on, the wide receiver depth chart was hit by the injury bug, and Dotson was asked to step up.
Alongside Hamler, a future second-round pick of the Denver Broncos, Dotson helped keep the passing game flowing during the home stretch of the campaign. McSorley relied on Dotson as a key playmaker, as the pair connected on 13 completions for 203 yards during the final seven games of the season.
“He kind of got thrust into the position,” McSorley said. “I think once he did [play], he just never looked back. He got that opportunity, and he was able to finish out the year pretty strongly. And then, obviously, he became the starting wide receiver the next year and just ran with it.”
A quarterback’s best friend
When McSorley left Penn State for the NFL in 2019, he was replaced by Clifford. From there, Dotson’s college career took off as he became a dynamic, go-to weapon for the offense.
During their three seasons as a duo, Clifford and Dotson connected on 23 touchdowns. That total is the most by a quarterback-receiver tandem in the program’s history.
Clifford credits Dotson with making his job easier.
“He’s got great hands — he’s going to catch the ball,” Clifford said. “He’s got tremendous speed, and then on top of that, just football savvy.”
During Dotson’s final three college seasons, the wideout produced 170 catches for 2,554 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Clifford depended on Dotson because of his versatility and consistency. The receiver could win on every route, and the duo had a fortified connection in the passing game.
“Obviously, the vertical game, the deep balls are always fun with Jahan because you can really air it out for him,” Clifford said. “But honestly, I would say those back-shoulder [throws]. Being able to throw a fade [route], back shoulder to him. … He was always so good at adjusting to the ball. We had such good chemistry, where he knew when the ball was going to come, so it made it easy for both of us.”
Dotson’s impressive tracking ability has always been a staple of his game. McSorley took advantage of that skill early in Dotson’s college career because it helped the quarterback push the ball down the field with ease.
“If you’ve got a guy that can track the ball really well — as he can — it allows you as a quarterback to kind of just throw him a ball where he can go make a play,” McSorley said.
Both McSorley and Clifford trusted Dotson to come down with the ball no matter where he was on the field. Few players earn that kind of trust from their quarterbacks at the college level, especially as underclassmen.
“I think Jahan is just a guy that you don’t need to worry about,” Clifford said. “He’s always going to be in the right place, he’s always going to be doing the right thing … He’s somebody who you can lean on when you need the big play.”
‘The spotlight is never too big’
Along with catching passes, Dotson was asked to return punts in critical moments. Against Michigan State in 2020, Dotson returned a punt for an 81-yard touchdown, sealing the game for Penn State in a 39-24 win.
“I was like, ‘I guess my day is over,’” Clifford said with a laugh.
Dotson, who ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in March, built a highlight reel of huge plays in big moments as a senior this past season. Along with his uncanny ability to track deep balls, Dotson continued to develop as a dynamic yards-after-catch weapon.
McSorley, who now plays for the Arizona Cardinals, has been impressed by Dotson’s improved vision and quickness in traffic over the years.
“That’s something that I didn’t get to see him do too much of within my last season — his freshman year,” McSorley said. “But now you see his punt return ability and some of the stuff he has been able to do with running after the catch, that type of stuff is something that I think is huge, especially for guys coming in. You can talk about running routes, but when you can get a guy a ball underneath and he can make something happen with that, that really opens things up for an offense.”
While McSorley and Clifford claim that Dotson isn’t an outspoken playmaker, the quarterbacks agree that the lights are never too bright for him. No matter the moment, Dotson can be depended on to make a game-changing play.
Dotson’s clutch playmaking ability should be a welcomed addition for Wentz and the Commanders’ offense this season.
“I think that with Jahan, the spotlight is never too big,” Clifford said. “He’s not a rah-rah guy, he’s not going to get crazy hyped up, but he loves the sport and he’s passionate. And that’s just how he acts: he’s very calm, he does his job to perfection, and he’s an elite football player.”