Redshirt Freshman KJ Hamler Earns Starting Role With Strong Camp, Leadership Skills
Few freshmen on a college football team are considered leaders. Even fewer earn comparisons to a player like Marcus Allen, who left a lasting impact on his team after a dazzling career as a Nittany Lion.
Redshirt freshman KJ Hamler earned both of these accolades throughout training camp leading up to the 2018 season. His play earned him a starting role on the Nittany Lions’ offense, as he’ll feature as the team’s slot receiver this weekend against Appalachian State.
Coach James Franklin named No. 1 as one of three starting receivers when he unveiled Penn State’s first depth chart of the season. The fifth-year head coach spoke to the strength of Hamler’s camp and how he strikes fear into his opposing defense’s coaches.
One of the Nittany Lions’ main ways of judging talent at wide receiver is having the defensive backs that face them in practice evaluate their opponents, according to Franklin. The slot receiver appeared near the top of these evaluations throughout camp due to his speed and explosiveness with the ball.
“When you talk to our defensive coaches about guys that scare them when they have the ball in their hand, KJ is one of the guys at the top of the list,” Franklin said at his first press conference of the season. “If we can get him involved in offense and get the ball in his hands and if we can get the ball in his hands on special teams, then we’d like to be able to do that. He’s an explosive player.”
On top of his starting role on offense, the Pontiac, MI native will return kickoffs for Penn State. Hamler hasn’t played a down of college football yet, but Franklin is clearly giving him plenty of responsibility and wants the ball in his arms as much as possible.
In addition to his skill and speed on the field, Franklin praised the slot receiver’s leadership skills. Since he’s just a redshirt freshman, Hamler doesn’t have leadership skills in a traditional sense, yet, but a big part of why he’s earned praise is his enthusiasm on a day-to-day basis.
“He’s also been a really good leader,” Franklin said. “What I mean by that is maybe not the leader that you think of when I say that, but a guy that brings enthusiasm and energy to meetings and the locker room, similar to the way Marcus [Allen] did for four years.”
Starting cornerback Amani Oruwariye sees his speed firsthand every day in practice, but he also saw No. 1’s confidence grow throughout training camp. As the senior said, Hamler’s combination of quickness and confidence is not easy to stop.
Oruwariye said that, like his head coach, he sees a lot of Marcus Allen in Hamler. The corner also noted that the young receiver was the same way last season.
“He’s a guy with a lot of energy,” Oruwariye said. “Even last year when he red-shirted, he was just bringing energy to the locker room. That’s just multiplied now that he’s going to have a bigger role. He’s just a leader by just showing that he’s coming out every day ready to work.”
Senior wideout DeAndre Thompkins, one of the team’s two other starting receivers, echoed Oruwariye’s praise of the new starter. According to Thompkins’ assessment, Hamler is the type of person to do a “back handspring out of bed” every day.
“KJ’s been very explosive,” Thompkins said. “He’s a fast guy who’s just been making plays. His personality is very hyper, he has a lot of energy. He’s just fun to be around, he cracks jokes a lot, so he’s one of those guys that’s contagious. He has a lot of energy to him.”
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