The future is now for Lions: Talented young skill players set to lead next era
UNIVERSITY PARK — Jahan Dotson’s academic advisor put it all into perspective for him. If his class of players — this upcoming season’s group of sophomores — remain together for the next three years, they have the potential to do something special.
“Imagine you get your whole class to stay for all four years and see where you’re at,” Dotson recalled his academic advisor telling him.
“Honestly, it would be pretty cool to see where [we’re] at after four years.”
While Micah Parsons has been the vocal leader of the defense this season, consistently praising the talent on the defensive side of the ball, there’s just as much — if not more — on the offensive side.
Everywhere you look, there is a former four or five-star prospect filling out the skill positions. The talent is abundant, but it’s young and inexperienced.
Dotson, redshirt freshman Justin Shorter and redshirt sophomore KJ Hamler create a three-headed monster of a receiving corps. Oh, and then there’s Freshman All-American tight end Pat Freiermuth.
At running back, former five-star prospect Ricky Slade headlines the group that will likely see redshirt sophomore Journey Brown and four-star freshman Noah Cain get plenty of reps as well.
“I feel like our team right now is very young, but very, very talented,” Shorter said.
But their new leader — Sean Clifford — is also just a redshirt sophomore.
“It’s truly exciting,” Dotson said of the offense’s talent.
But that talent doesn’t have a whole lot of experience.
Outside of Hamler and Freiermuth, none of those key skill guys got a regular amount of reps last season.
Slade had just 45 carries last season. Dotson and Shorter combined for just 14 catches. Clifford has just seven career passing attempts.
Now, after an offseason that saw a number of players graduate, declare early for the NFL Draft and several others leave via transfer, the spotlight is squarely on them.
“We definitely had to grow up,” Dotson said. We had a lot of experience leave, but we all know our capabilities and our talent.”
With everyone searching for around the locker room for a leader after the departure, Clifford didn’t hesitate to grab the reins. According to Parsons, Clifford stood in front of the team during a meeting and promised that the quarterback play would not drop off in 2019.
“He’s born to be a leader,” Slade said of Clifford. “He hates losing no matter what it is. He was never afraid of the moment.”
“Sean hasn’t missed a beat,” Dotson added. “He’s been preaching that he’s going to take the leadership role. We’ve been getting in late night [workouts] in Holuba, in the indoor [facility], just getting that chemistry for each other, knowing each other’s steps.”
How quickly Clifford and his receivers develop that chemistry could be the difference between a 6-0 and 4-2 start for the Nittany Lions. For a program that spent the early part of this decade filling out its depth chart with a multitude of walk-ons and two-star prospects, a lack of weapons is no longer an excuse.
Whether it’s throwing deep balls to Dotson, Shorter, Hamler and Freiermuth or handing the ball off to Slade, Clifford has plenty of talent to work with.
“I don’t think there is a ceiling,” Slade said. “We can go as high as we all set our minds to be.”