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KJ Hamler Grows Into One Of College Football’s Most Dynamic Playmakers In Debut Season

From an individual standpoint, redshirt freshman wide receiver KJ Hamler’s 2018 season couldn’t have gone more according to plan.

Hamler led Penn State in receiving yards with 714 — 375 yards more than second-placed Juwan Johnson. His five touchdown receptions were the most among the Nittany Lions’ wide receiving corps and second only to Pat Freiermuth’s seven for the overall team lead.

The Pontiac, MI native was a threat whenever he had the ball in his hands due to his lightning-quick speed and acceleration, two attributes which were on full display during this year’s White Out game.

“That was my most tiring play, but my favorite one [of the season]” Hamler said of his 93-yard touchdown reception against Ohio State. “I didn’t really see it coming, but it just happened. It’s all instincts, I didn’t really know that would happen.”

Those instincts also allowed Hamler to take on a different role outside of his usual duties on the offense as a slot receiver. He took on a big role on special teams by returning kickoffs and the occasional punt. Although the shifty wideout didn’t find the end zone on a kick or punt return, he definitely made some huge plays in the return game.

Hamler’s most impactful kick return came in Penn State’s opening-day victory over Appalachian State at Beaver Stadium. The Mountaineers had just scored a touchdown to take a seven-point lead with less than two minutes to play when Hamler appeared to make a mental error which could’ve cost Penn State the game.

He fielded a kickoff a few yards deep in the end zone and hesitated before taking it out. The decision ended up paying off; Hamler created some space for himself and returned the ball all the way out to midfield, setting himself up to score a 15-yard touchdown to force overtime.

“I think KJ has done a phenomenal job in the kick return game,” special teams coach Phil Galiano said Sunday. “We want him to have the ball in his hands every opportunity we can. We think he can score every time he touches the ball.”

KJ Hamler’s rise into a key part of Penn State’s offense led to the birth of a new signature celebration in Happy Valley.

Penn State’s electric freshman will face a different challenge when he lines up to return Kentucky’s kickoffs in the Citrus Bowl. The Wildcats have given up the occasional big play, but ranked No. 16 in all of college football after allowing 17.73 yards per kickoff return this season.

Kentucky has surprisingly been far less effective in the punt return game this season; only 10 programs in FBS allowed more yards per punt return than the Wildcats did. With that being said, they didn’t allow a single touchdown via a kick or punt return.

“Sometimes stats can be skewed,” Galiano said of Kentucky’s special teams coverage. “I know they had a couple big returns against them, which will skew the stats, and I know they’ve done a really good job in some other opportunities.”

The Nittany Lions’ special teams unit will balance utilizing Hamler’s ability aggressively with making the smart play, according to Galiano. Although letting Hamler run free might always seem like the smartest option, there are times when he’ll have to take a knee to save time and allow the offense to have as much time to operate as possible.

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About the Author

Mikey Mandarino

In the most upsetting turn of events, Mikey graduated from Penn State with a digital & print journalism degree in the spring of 2020. He covered Penn State football and served as an editor for Onward State from 2018 until his graduation. Mikey is from Bedminster, New Jersey, so naturally, he spends lots of time yelling about all the best things his home state has to offer. Mikey also loves to play golf, but he sucks at it because golf is really hard. If you, for some reason, feel compelled to see what Mikey has to say on the internet, follow him on Twitter @Mikey_Mandarino. You can also get in touch with Mikey via his big-boy email address: [email protected]

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