KJ Hamler Plays Hero For Penn State In Overtime Win

All offseason long, Penn State players and coaches alike extolled KJ Hamler and his electric skillset, saying he was the standout performer of spring ball.

In a 45-38 overtime win over Appalachian State Saturday evening at Beaver Stadium, Hamler’s heroics helped the Nittany Lions survive and advance.

The redshirt freshman receiver from Pontiac, MI, scored the game-tying touchdown on a 15-yard strike from Trace McSorley with 42 seconds left in regulation, but it likely wouldn’t have been possible without Hamler’s guts on a 52-yard kickoff return moments earlier.

Standing somewhat deep in Penn State’s end zone, Hamler hesitated for a split second before deciding to turn on the jets. The speedy 5-foot-9 slot receiver made a few Mountaineers miss, then bolted down the right sideline and into Appalachian State territory. James Franklin said postgame it was scripted.

“To be honest, on that play I just saw the clock,” Hamler said. “I knew it was the fourth quarter, we had two minutes left. I had to make a play. I had to make the play, and it worked out in our favor…I just took a leap of faith.”

Hamler finished with four catches for a team-high 68 yards in his first career start, as the former four-star prospect from IMG Academy showed exactly why Franklin recruited him so heavily despite a torn ACL as a senior in high school.

Saturday marked Hamler’s first live-game action in 742 days, but there were no signs of rust for the Detroit area standout. (KJ is short for Kahlee Jacoby, by the way.)

Hamler (1) gets pumped up before taking the field.

“I didn’t know what I was supposed to expect because it was my first college game. It’s for sure not like high school,” Hamler said. “Now that I’ve got a feeling for it, I think I can adjust way better now going into other games coming up this year. Just blessed to be here.”

Hamler was a two-year letterman at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in Michigan, Allen Robinson’s alma mater, before transferring to IMG, where he sat out his final season while recovering from the injury.

Hamler spent 2017 putting on weight and adjusting to the rigors of Big Ten football, but now he’s ready to take the conference by storm. Already viewed as a leader in the locker room, Hamler and his bright personality should become a staple of Penn State’s highlight reels this season.

Perched on a chair in the back of Beaver Stadium’s media room, Hamler discussed his game-saving touchdown catch.

“Basically, I just saw man-to-man coverage, and we’re always talking about ‘win mentality,’ so I hit him with our technique that we use every day. I hit him with a little double move and I just won.”

Hamler’s touchdown catch showcased his outstanding hand-eye coordination.

Hamler strongly considered scholarship offers from Oregon and Michigan State before committing to the Nittany Lions on Dec. 9, 2016 — less than a week after Penn State won the Big Ten championship. This summer, he beat out redshirt junior Brandon Polk for a starting job at receiver alongside Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins.

“One of the things we probably have to look at is ways we can get his hands on the ball a little bit more offensively and on special teams because he has a chance to change the game at any moment,” Franklin said.

Hamler, who shared a hug with teammate-turned-Steelers safety Marcus Allen postgame, spoke glowingly of McSorley’s impact on his transition to college, saying he’s acted like a big brother to him.

“Trace is like the backbone of the team. He gets everybody right,” Hamler said. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, he comes over and tells you. He knows the whole offense…He’s been a big brother to me, helping me learn and helping me get better on the field and off the field. I appreciate him 100 percent.”

McSorley became the first Penn State player to reach 80 career touchdowns Saturday.

Redshirt junior safety Garrett Taylor, who made his first career start against the Mountaineers, was complimentary of Hamler’s impact on both offense and special teams.

“KJ is obviously electric, explosive,” Taylor said. “We kind of came to expect that out of KJ. It was just good to see him do it on game day.”

Franklin said he told Hamler to get back to his usual, smiling self in the second half. He had 113 of his 120 all-purpose yards in the fourth quarter.

“One of the things I tried to do with KJ around halftime, he hadn’t said a word, and I think you guys know the only thing faster than KJ’s feet is his mouth. I said, ‘You need to start talking and having fun because I’m not seeing that.’ He said, ‘Oh, I’m locked in.’ I said, ‘No, I want you to practice the same way you play in games and you don’t act like this in [practice], so start having some fun, start enjoying yourself.'”

Hamler reflected on his comeback from injury and the advice his father gave him leading up to Saturday’s season opener. Next week, he and the Nittany Lions travel to Heinz Field to face Pitt in a primetime showdown.

“I’ve been waiting so long for this opportunity. My dad always tells me, ‘When you go out there, you know what you’ve got to do.'”

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About the Author

Ethan Kasales

Ethan’s a senior journalism major who grew up in Lemont, a few minutes from campus. When he’s not covering Penn State sports, you can usually find him golfing or teaching snowboarding at Tussey Mountain. Feel free to email him at [email protected].

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