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Penn State Football: KJ Hamler’s NFL Decision Is Pending; Seider Expects All 4 Running Backs 'to Be Back'

by on December 28, 2019 7:00 PM

ARLINGTON, Texas — On the AT&T Stadium field in the moments after Penn State’s 53-39 victory over Memphis in the Cotton Bowl, KJ Hamler took a few moments to reflect and rejoice with two special people in his life.

Shortly after the game here on Saturday, Hamler spotted his father Thomas at a ground level suite. The two exchanged a hug that lasted for more than a minute.

“I was thinking about all the work I’ve put in with my dad, starting at a young age,” said Hamler, who’s 20-and-a-half and overcame ACL surgery as a high school senior to return to full speed. Over the past two seasons, he’s caught a team-high 98 passes for 1,658 yards as Penn Styate’s No. 1 receiver,

“It was not hanging out at parties, not hanging out with friends, just doing football,” he said. “Last year we lost (in the Citrus Bowl vs Kentucky) and now I can sit back and wear a ring I’m proud of.”

Hamler also exchanged a post-game embrace with tight end Pat Freiermuth, who has already announced he will return for the 2020 season. The top two Penn State pass-catchers did confetti angels together on the artificial turf and Hamler told his teammate that he loved him.

“I wouldn’t trade this thing for the world at all,” Hamler said. “I’m glad I get to do it with these guys.”

Was it the redshirt sophomore wide receiver’s final game wearing No. 1 for Penn State? Hamler, who had two catches for 46 yards and a kickoff return for 24 yards in the bowl game, politely declined to say.

“I still have to talk with Coach (James Franklin), think some things over and will let you all know,” Hamler said in the Penn State locker room. “Give it a few days. Today is not about me.”

If Hamler does declare for the 2020 NFL Draft — he has until January 20 to officially file paperwork with the league office — he’s had a spectacular two-season run, with 2,989 all-purpose yards in 2018-19, the seventh-best two-year total in Penn State history, and 13 touchdowns. The Nittany Lions’ primary KR/PR as well, Hamler was named Penn State’s most valuable player for 2019 at a regular season-ending banquet a few weeks ago.

OTHER DRAFT NOTICES

In addition to Freiermuth, Nittany Lion offensive linemen Will Fries and Michal Menet previously they would return for next season.

In the locker room after the bowl game, a few of the other draft-eligible Nittany Lions were non-committal about their near-future plans…for now. Those players included:

Defensive end Shaka Toney, a redshirt junior defensive end from Philadelphia, who started every game in 2019, and had a pair of tackles against Memphis. In 2019, he finished with 41 tackles, including eight for a loss and 6.5 sacks, second-most on the team.

Toney indicated that declaring for the draft was still an option: “I have thought about it. You know, I have time. I’ll give it some more thought.”

Tariq Castro-Fields, a junior cornerback from Maryland, started his 12th game of the season against Memphis, and has 14 starts as a Nittany Lion. He had a pair of interceptions in 2019. He entered the bowl game as the Nittany Lions’ sixth-leading tackler, and had four tackles against Memphis.

“There are some things I need to talk over with my mom and the coaching staff,” Castro-Fields said. “There will be an announcement. It’ll come out soon.”

Lamont Wade, a junior safety from Clairton, Pa., who was the Nittany Lions’ No. 4 tackler in 2019, with 67 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss, two sacks and three forced fumbles. He had three tackles on Saturday. Wade entered the Transfer Portal last offseason, but eventually opted to return to Penn State and earned the starting job.

“Yeah, I have thought it and I have considered it, of course,” Wade said after the game. “I don’t know what’s going on right now. I don’t know where I’m at. I’m still thinking about it. I’m still weighing the pros and cons.”

RUNNING BACK ROOM

In the Penn State running back room, only redshirt sophomore Journey Brown is eligible to declare for the NFL Draft.

Brown had 202 yards and two touchdowns rushing in the bowl game, capping a season-ending five-game stretch that included four 100-yard games, 593 rushing yards and nine TDs. Brown finished 2019 with 890 yards on 129 carries, with 13 TDs. After the game, Brown emphatically shared that he plans to return to Penn State in 2020.

Running backs coach Ja'Juan Seider said he expects that Brown will be part of a crowded RB room that currently includes sophomore Ricky Slade (47 carries, 214 yards, 2 TDs), and freshmen Noah Cain (84-443-7) and Devyn Ford (52-294-3).

After the game in the Penn State locker room, I asked Seider, “Do you have assurances from all four kids that they’ll be back next year?”

Seider hedged a bit, but his ultimate bottom line was that he said he thought all four would return for the 2020 season.

“Ah, you know what? We haven’t even talked about it,” Seider replied. “I’ll leave that to everybody else. I try to do the best job of being their coach. I’ve been a father figure to them. I think we have a bond in that room that is strong as any bond out there in the country.

“Every kid wants to play and it’s a generation where you got the kids who work for it and you got the kids who are entitled. I got a bunch of guys who work for it. Nobody in that room is entitled. And that’s the type of guys you appreciate coaching.

“I think more people outside our room talk what a kid is going to do than we do. Not one time has it been talked about. Right now, all those kids are coming back. I expect to coach all four of those kids next year in the spring. And also watch them get better next year in the spring is what the goal is. I expect all of them to be back.”

If so, the four Nittany Lions will be joined by two additional running backs on scholarship.

Franklin and Seider added a pair of running backs, both from Florida, on National Signing Day two weeks ago: Caziah Holmes from Cocoa High School in Titusville, and Keyvone Lee from American Collegiate Academy and St. Petersburg.

How does Seider expect to juggle the carries for all six?

“I’ll worry about it when I get to it,” he said with a hint of a chuckle, then referenced newly-hired offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca.

“That’s the hard part. I’m putting it on Kirk. Now it’s his job to balance it. My job is just coaching. We got to get them on the field together.

“The good thing about it is that they all know they need to compete. Nobody can take a day off. We’ve been preaching that since I got here. And we’re always talking about playing more guys any way. The knock on us was that we we’re playing a lot of guys. Now I guess we play too many guys.”



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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