KJ Hamler’s teammates refuse to let him forget the nickname he picked up back in high school — the “Human Joystick.”
Whether it’s on the field or in the film room, after a nice catch or following a mistake, the Nittany Lions can’t let a good nickname like that go to waste.
“All the time,” fellow Penn State wideout Brandon Polk said, when asked how often he reminds Hamler. “We always call him the ‘Human Joystick.’ He laughs. It’s kind of funny — but I think it fits.”
Technically, the shifty redshirt freshman is “Human Joystick 2.0” because the original nickname belonged to explosive NFL great Dante Hall, who racked up 12 return touchdowns with the Kansas City Chiefs and St. Louis Rams over a nine-year career. Hamler earned the moniker during Nike’s The Opening in 2016, when Bleacher Report’s Michael Felder made the comparison while calling him a “nightmare” to tackle after the catch.
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The way he jukes defenders and makes cuts like a video-game character is unique, even at the Big Ten level. And, when he first got to campus, his teammates were already well aware of his background.
“Ever since I got here, ‘Oh, you’re the Human Joystick, huh?’” Hamler said with a laugh. “So I’m like, yeah, I guess that’s me.”
Added Polk: “We both have speed and stuff like that but, KJ, he just has a different knack to him — he has the ability to create big plays. Everyone in the room does, but it’s just different.”
Hamler has yet to take a snap in a real game, but he showed a glimpse of his potential in the spring Blue-White Game. Hamler recorded the longest play of the day, on a 50-yard catch-and-run, before the ball was stripped at the end.
In film from his high school junior season — he missed his senior year with a serious ACL injury — he was a human highlight reel. On one return, he faked out three defenders, including the same player twice, and then outran everyone en route to a 70-yard touchdown.
“Oh, he certainly can live up to it,” defensive back Nick Scott said, referring to the nickname. “I try to make sure in any situation (in practice) that he can’t, but he’s put some guys on skates — which is kind of his M.O. His cutback is deadly, so he’s athletic and we try not to let him out of the box. But if you do, you got to watch out.”
Hamler is competing with DeAndre Thompkins for time in the slot. And, although he’s mostly practiced with the second team so far, he’s still expected to see touches this season. He’s also one of Penn State’s potential special-teams returners.
Head coach James Franklin referred to him as the “buzz” of spring camp. And although that’s behind him — “Spring camp was the last camp; this is where it all begins, so I’m not worried about what was said,” Hamler added — he’s still managed to impressed veterans with his growth.
He arrived in Happy Valley as a 150-pound receiver. After adding muscle, he’s now up to 175 pounds while claiming he still maintains 4.34 speed. He said he stayed after every off-season workout to fine-tune his hands and routes, and he believes he’s channeled his past potential into being a more complete player.
His teammates tend to agree.
“He’s already a totally different receiver,” Polk said. “He had the speed last year, but he was kind of wild. Now, he’s kind of got his speed down to where his routes are crisp.”
Added Juwan Johnson: “He’s definitely lived up to that nickname. We kind of joke to him about it ... but he’s doing a great job. I’m glad he’s picking it up. His time is now.”
Hamler knows he isn’t the main target of this offense. He’s still eyeing a starting job over Thompkins. But, whatever happens, he still plans to back up his nickname whenever his name is called.
And he can’t wait.
“I’ll be the real ‘Human Joystick’ when I prove it this season,” he said. “So I’m just ready to show y’all what I got this season.”