When KJ Hamler or DeAndre Thompkins field a kick on special teams, there’s a heightened sense of excitement around Beaver Stadium — with fans waiting for a reason to pop off.
“When they catch the ball, you can hear the whole stadium go, ‘Ohhhhh,’” Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley said with a smile. “It’s a what’s-about-to-happen type of deal.”
So far, the two returners haven’t disappointed.
Hamler — a redshirt freshman who already looks like the second coming of Derrick Williams — is killing it as Penn State’s kick returner. The 5-foot-9 speedster nicknamed “The Human Joystick” is averaging 35.4 yards per return, third-most in the country among players with at least five attempts. That number is buoyed by a pair 52-yard returns — one that might have saved Penn State’s season against Appalachian State, and another in Saturday’s 63-10 win over Kent State.
Meanwhile, Thompkins — a fifth-year senior and second-team All-Big Ten returner last year — is at it again. His 21.5 yards per punt return ranks fourth nationally among those who have at least five attempts. Thompkins scored on a 39-yard return at Pitt last weekend and treated the home crowd to a 32-yarder on Saturday.
McSorley said after Penn State’s 53-point win, “It felt like we were working with short fields all day.” And the offense, for the most part, was. The Nittany Lions started drives in Kent State territory four times and scored touchdowns on three of those series.
Hamler and Thompkins’ speed, shiftiness and confidence makes for a dangerous combo — one that can electrify those sitting in metal bleachers and scare those standing across the field.
“Everybody in the stadium is excited to see what they’re going to do,” head coach James Franklin said. “And the coaches and the special teams’ coordinator gets gray hairs on the opposite sideline. That’s the reality of it.
“When you have an explosive guy as a kickoff returner and punt returner, it has an effect. The other 10 guys play better because they know if they can hold their block a second longer, this guy can take it to the house. That energy, that positive energy that happens back there with that returner, it feeds into everybody.”
A friendly reminder: The weekly Good, Bad and Ugly shines light on what happened that didn’t receive attention in the CDT’s postgame coverage. Trace McSorley’s Heisman poise, Penn State’s sack-minded defensive line and the game’s turning point have already been addressed.
- If you left the rout early or flipped to another game, you missed Sean Clifford’s 95-yard touchdown hookup with Daniel George — now the longest play from scrimmage in Penn State history. Previously, the Nittany Lions had a 92-yard pass from Bill Hess to Bob Higgins in 1919 and rushes of 92 yards by Blair Thomas (vs. Syracuse, 1986), Bill Belton (vs. Indiana, 2014) and Saquon Barkley (vs. Washington, 2017). The history behind the Clifford-George connection is remarkable. And so was the play itself. George put Kent State’s corner on skates with a perfect double move. Clifford’s pump fake sold it, too, making the catch-and-run look easy.
- For the second week in a row, veteran cornerback John Reid did not see the field — which meant another start for sophomore Tariq Castro-Fields. The Maryland native had three tackles, one for a loss, and a pass breakup against the Golden Flashes. Castro-Fields said getting time as the team’s nickel corner against App State was key to his accelerated development. Since then, he’s been playing at full speed. “I’m just blessed to be here,” Castro-Fields said. And without Reid in the lineup, the Nittany Lions are happy to have him.
- Props to Pat Freiermuth, who took another step toward the starting tight end role. After blocking well at Pitt, the true freshman just needed to insert himself in the passing game more, and he did that. Freiermuth caught two passes for 35 yards, including a 23-yarder in which he used his 6-foot-5 frame to box out a defender and high-point the ball. McSorley is “really excited” about what Freiermuth has already accomplished. “And his role is going to continue to increase as he gets more comfortable,” the captain said.
- Often times, the biggest winners in a blowout are the scout-team contributors. Players like Jason Vranic and Max Chizmar making tackles in the fourth quarter is neat. And a fifth-year running back like Johnathan Thomas scoring a touchdown is something worth recognizing. Thomas — who, over the past three years, switched from running back to linebacker and back to his original position — ripped off a 69-yard run that set Penn State’s bench into delirium. Three plays later, he found the end zone on a 15-yard run. Thomas, a special teams role player, might never score another touchdown in his career. But he’ll always have that run on Saturday.
- For the second time in three weeks, Penn State allowed an onside kick recovery. In Franklin’s App State postgame press conference, he explained that the front line of his kick return team was caught “creeping out a little bit early” to head downfield and block. It looked like it happened again on Saturday. That’s something for first-year special teams coordinator Phil Galiano to address this week.
- A holding by Michal Menet negated KJ Hamler’s opening-series 56-yard snag. A Freiermuth offensive pass interference — a clear pick play — illegally sprung Juwan Johnson free for a 24-yard score. And another hold, this time by CJ Thorpe, took away Cam Sullivan-Brown’s 66-yard touchdown. Three offensive penalties negated touchdowns. That can’t happen now that Big Ten play is here.
- The drops have to stop. In the season opener, Johnson squandered three catches. Against Pitt, Thompkins missed two would-be touchdowns. And on Saturday, that bad juju spread to Penn State’s other pass-catchers. Brandon Polk — whose reliability earned him co-starter status with Thompkins on this week’s depth chart — let one fly through his hands. Jon Holland, who’s battling for time with Freiermuth, dropped an easy pass in the flat. Running back Miles Sanders bobbled a pass that ended up being picked off. And Johnson looked like he didn’t know McSorley might target him when sluggishly running an out route, letting the pass tip off his hand. Penn State can rebound from mistakes like that against Kent State. Ohio State is a different story.