Penn State wideout KJ Hamler couldn’t even venture a real guess at how many times he’s since replayed Saturday’s kick return, the one that kept his team’s playoff hopes alive.
“I’ve probably watched that 1,000 times, to be honest with you,” he said Wednesday, after having time to reflect on the 45-38 overtime win against Appalachian State. “Just to see why I made the decision I made, what I could’ve done better.”
Four days after the play and Hamler’s kick return is still the talk around Happy Valley. It’s recited like a folk tale: In his Penn State debut, with a seven-point deficit late in the fourth quarter, the redshirt freshman fields the Appalachian State kick 5 yards deep in the end zone, hesitates and then takes it out. He jukes one defender around the 6-yard line, then finds space along the right sideline and follows his blockers for a 52-yard return.
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That set up Penn State’s late, game-tying touchdown — to Hamler, of course — and it also instantly made the redshirt freshman a campus celebrity.
“A lot of the students and some of the teachers were telling me, ‘Great game, great catch, great kick return.’ Stuff like that,” Hamler told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. “It’s pretty cool. But I would say, it wasn’t just me. It was my teammates.”
The Michigan native praised his blockers, including 328-pound backup C.J. Thorpe who stopped a few opponents downfield. “Seeing CJ keep up with me,” Hamler said, “that was a big surprise.”
Hamler didn’t want to look back on the kick return too much. He said his focus is on Pitt — but he did relent and share James Franklin’s reaction when the team broke down film Sunday. After all, under most circumstances, Hamler would have likely gotten an earful for taking a return out of the end zone.
This return was a little different.
“He got on me, but he didn’t get on me like I thought he would,” Hamler said. “He basically told me how he was on the sideline yelling, ‘No, no, no,’ and then when I broke the first tackle, he was screaming, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ ... I think it just brought the spark back to the game.”