KJ Hamler didn’t plan to field the kickoff. Not at first. He stopped — and then changed his mind.
And, with it, maybe Penn State’s season.
The redshirt freshman, nicknamed “The Human Joystick,” was Mr. Clutch in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s win over Appalachian State. He stretched out to haul in a 46-yard over-the-shoulder reception, one that set up a short touchdown run early in the quarter, and then caught the game-tying 15-yard TD pass with 42 seconds left in regulation. But it was Hamler’s kick return that really changed the face of the game.
With less than two minutes remaining in regulation, and the Nittany Lions trailing by a touchdown, Appalachian State booted a kickoff into the end zone. Hamler planned to take a knee — until he didn’t.
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Instead, he came to a stop — and then took off running 52 yards to give Penn State the opportunity to win. To keep their College Football Playoff hopes alive.
“I hesitated,” Hamler said with a smile. “But I saw two minutes left on the clock, and I said we needed a play. If I would’ve gotten tackled on the 12, that would’ve been bad.
“But I had to risk it. Sometimes, you got to take risks to do big things. I took a risk and that had to happen.”
Hamler might’ve wagered the Nittany Lions’ entire season on those legs, in spite of the fact this was his first true game in two years. (He missed his high school senior season with an ACL injury and redshirted last season.) But his bet paid off in a big way in the 45-38 overtime win. After all, a 48-yard drive is an awful lot easier than a 75- or 88-yard march.
“I didn’t think he was going to take it out,” tight end Jon Holland said. “And then I know he’d been itching the whole game to take it out of the end zone, so when he started going, I just turned around and ran as fast as I could trying to get a block.
“Initially, we were all like, ‘I don’t know about that.’ Then you see him start running and you’re like, ‘Just do what you do,’ and let it happen.”
Hamler’s performance didn’t come out of nowhere. James Franklin said in the spring that he was the “buzz” of camp. And teammates said last month that his big-play ability is just different. Brandon Polk struggled putting it into words.
His numbers Saturday reflect that: Hamler caught 80 percent of his targets, gained a team-high 68 receiving yards and accounted for Trace McSorley’s only passing touchdown. And, of course, there was that kick return.
“Once you get the ball in his hands, you saw it,” McSorley said. “He made us a huge play on a kick return where he’s probably all but swallowed up early, made a guy miss, then accelerated down the sidelines. That’s who he is.”
After the third quarter, Hamler had just two catches for seven yards. In the fourth quarter, he had 113 all-purpose yards and a score. It was one of the most critical final-quarter performances ever in a Penn State opener.
Before that game-tying drive, the atmosphere in Beaver Stadium was nervous and uncertain. Redshirt freshman Des Holmes chewed on the side of his cheek, fans in body paint leaned over the railing and groaned, and one yellow-shirted security guard turned to another and declared, “This offense sucks!” For a while, it looked like Penn State was about to join Michigan as the Goliath to Appalachian State’s David.
But then Hamler stepped up.
Franklin wasn’t sure if it’s what he told the young player. “I said, you need to start talking, having some fun,” Franklin recalled. “I said I want you to practice the same way you play in games. And you don’t act like this in practice.” But Hamler, whose mouth is nearly as quick as his feet, told Franklin he’d be excited when he got the ball in his hands. He stayed true to his word; Hamler said he was excited after his touchdown catch.
“We got to find ways to get the ball in his hands,” Franklin said after the win.
Hamler wasn’t projected by many to earn the starting job over Polk this soon. But Franklin and his teammates have consistently expressed their surprise over Hamler.
He should be a big part of this offense going forward. And, no matter what, he played a huge role in staving off an upset and saving Penn State’s season — whether it was the kickoff return, the long catch to set up a touchdown or the TD catch.
“I just knew I had to make a play and I had to win,” Hamler said. “And that’s what we’re all about — we’re about winning. And that’s what happened.”