DaeSean Hamilton hasn’t forgotten about that one play, and he’s gone to extraordinary measures to make sure it never happens again.
On Sept. 10, Hamilton dropped a potential go-ahead touchdown against Pittsburgh in the fourth quarter. Down 42-39 with less than three minutes left, Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley let one rip down the Pitt sideline. Hamilton had a couple steps on his corner, the ball was there, and it hit fingertips, falling to the grass.
“The drop at Pitt still haunts me to this day because of the situation that we could be in,” Hamilton said on a conference call Wednesday.
But the redshirt junior wide receiver knows he can’t focus on his unfortunate mistake.
“I can’t change what happened in the past,” Hamilton noted.
He could only learn and grow from it — and that’s what he’s done, blossoming into the leader of Penn State’s receiving corps.
With the No. 8 Nittany Lions (8-2, 6-1) on a six-game winning streak, they’ve clearly rebounded just fine from the loss at Pitt and a 49-10 faceplant at Michigan.
A key reason why Penn State has bounced back is its stockpile of big-play receivers. Between Hamilton, Chris Godwin, Saeed Blacknall, DeAndre Thompkins and Irvin Charles, the Nittany Lions have enough weapons on the outside to threaten any secondary they face.
And while Godwin leads Penn State in receptions (39), receiving yards (591) and touchdowns (7), Hamilton, the eldest member of the rotation, has taken on more of a leadership role.
“It just comes with time, the respect that the guys are showing me,” Hamilton said. “I’ve been around for so long … I know the ropes of college football and what it takes to be successful on Saturday.”
Hamilton has been a Nittany Lion for quite some time. The Virginia native, who redshirted in 2013, is one of only two receivers on Penn State’s current roster that was coached by Bill O’Brien.
When his wrist injury healed and Allen Robinson left for the NFL, Hamilton emerged as Christian Hackenberg’s primary target in 2014. The 6-foot-1 target recorded 82 receptions, second-most in single-season program history behind Robinson’s 97 the season before.
Hamilton took a step back in 2015. The Penn State offense looked anemic more often than not, and his stats took a hit, catching 45 passes for 540 yards.
And now, yet again, Hamilton’s production has decreased. He’s third on the team in receptions (23) and fourth in receiving yards (337).
So, what gives this season? It’s pretty simple, actually.
“We have a lot more talent now than we did back in 2014,” Hamilton said. “There are gonna be a lot of guys that have to get touches. They’re spreading the wealth.”
And Hamilton understands that. In fact, he’s embraced it.
Hamilton’s no longer the featured guy, so when he’s not on the field 100 percent of the time he’s helping out his fellow receivers. Giving advice, watching their reps in practice, and making sure they’re prepared each Saturday, Hamilton’s using the wealth of experience he’s gained over the past four years.
“I’ve matured a lot since 2014,” the wideout said. “I’ve seen a lot of things, and you really go through a lot in the course of a season.”
One of those inevitable “things” wide receivers go through is drops, and to ensure that a mistake like the one on Sept. 10 doesn’t hinder the Nittany Lions again, Hamilton has made it a point to catch 500 to 600 passes per week ever since. He’ll snag passes before or after practice every day, preparing himself for whenever his name is called.
With such a spread-out attack (eight different players have caught touchdowns this season), those opportunities to make a big play are sometimes few and far between.
Hamilton did, however, get a shot at Indiana. On a well-timed flea flicker, the wideout created separation and hauled in a 54-yard momentum-shifter, setting up a go-ahead score in the fourth quarter.
“I was just waiting for my chance to come again to make a big play for the team,” Hamilton said. “I just wanted to make sure that I made the most of it.”
Hamilton did — and given his mental fortitude and leadership since the early-season mistake, expect him to keep capitalizing on those opportunities and preparing his younger teammates to do so, as well.