From Jordy Nelson and Donald Driver to Torrey Smith and Jordan Matthews, the laundry list of record-setting and NFL wide receivers James Franklin has worked with over his 24-year coaching career is long. And he believes redshirt freshman K.J Hamler belongs in that conversation.
“Is K.J. right up there with those guys and as impressive a redshirt freshman as I’ve ever been around?” Franklin said. “No doubt about it.”
Thankfully for the Nittany Lions, they’ll have a playmaker of Hamler’s caliber available on Saturday. During his Tuesday afternoon press conference, Franklin simply said, “Yeah,” when asked if he expected Hamler to play against Michigan State. The speedster left Penn State’s 27-26 loss to Ohio State in the fourth quarter and did not return after sustaining a hit around his head.
The fact that Hamler isn’t seriously injured after Ohio State safety Isaiah Pryor was ejected for targeting is obviously positive news for Penn State’s passing attack. In a five-game sample size, Hamler has looked like Kansas City Chiefs all-purpose machine Tyreke Hill.
“The Human Joystick” is Penn State’s leading receiver with 308 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 13 catches. That 23.69 yards per catch average ranks fifth in the country and will be a Penn State record if he keeps it up. Joe Jurevicius currently holds the season-best mark of 21.2 yards per reception in 1996. He caught the game-tying touchdown against Appalachian State, had a 93-yard catch-and-run score in the loss to Ohio State and even ran for a 32-yard jet sweep score at Pitt.
Every time Hamler has touched the ball, something remarkable has happened — or the crowd believes something will go down. That extends to special teams, too. The 5-foot-9, 173-pounder boasts a pair of 52-yard kickoff returns, the first of which jump-started Penn State in the fourth quarter of its Week 1 upset scare. Hamler’s 26.2 yards per kickoff return ranks 19th in the country and third in the Big Ten.
That explosiveness was missed in the final frame against Ohio State. His replacement in the slot, Mac Hippenhammer, didn’t have the speed to find the end zone on a two-point conversion try and couldn’t haul in a tough third-down catch later in the fourth quarter.
In that ending, Penn State missed an edge, a burst of energy. But now the Nittany Lions have it back.
“When he’s on the field, he’s pretty electric,” Penn State wideout Juwan Johnson said. “He gives you that confidence when you’re next to him, and you kind of feed off each other. When he’s on the field, he’s a big part of the offense.”
Added Franklin: “He is an energy giver. ...K.J. is what’s great about college football.”