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Penn State Football: What If KJ Hamler Turns Pro?

by on December 25, 2019 6:00 PM

KJ Hamler has quietly put together one of the best set of back-to-back seasons for all-purpose yards in Penn State history.

OK, KJ has never done anything “quietly.”

In this case, though, it may be true.

Hamler’s 2018-19 season total of 2,919 yards — and counting — puts him among the initialed and singular name pantheons of versatile Nittany Lion greats.

He had 1,417 all-purpose yards in 2018 and has 1,502 in 2019: 858 yards receiving, 29 rushing, 126 on punt returns and 489 on kickoff returns. 

Every time he’s touched the ball in his 25-game Penn State career — 191 touches, in all; about 7.5 per game — he’s averaged 15.28 yards.

With 163 or more total yards in the Cotton Bowl, Hamler would vault to No. 4 on the Penn State list of all-purpose yards gained in consecutive seasons. (He’d already be there, if not for penalties nullifying a 100-yard TD kickoff return vs. Michigan and a 48-yard punt return for a TD against Michigan State in successive weeks in October.) The list:

1. Saquon Barkley, 4,301 yards (2016-17)

2. Larry Johnson, 3,637 (2001-02)

3. O.J. McDuffie, 3,198 (1991-92)

4. John Cappelletti, 3,081 (1972-73)

5. Curtis Enis, 3,079 (1996-97)

6. Lydell Mitchell, 3,025 (1970-71)

7. KJ Hamler, 2,919 (2018-19)

The list is one of generational greatness, dating back five decades. It may...actually, should...make you think differently about what Hamler has accomplished the past two seasons.

Following the second of their two-year runs noted above, each Nittany Lion was selected in the first round of the NFL draft, except for Mitchell. He was picked in Round 2 by Baltimore and went on to play in three Pro Bowls. Blair Thomas, another first-round draft pick, had 3,307 yards in consecutive seasons played (1987, ’89), but missed the 1988 campaign with an injury.

It’s an august group, for sure. The question for Hamler though, is this: Will he go pro this April — or in April 2021?

Hamler, who sat out his freshman season at Penn State after tearing his ACL as a high school senior at IMG and is now in Year 3 at PSU, knows the answer. But he’s not saying.

At least he didn’t last Friday, when he spoke at a Penn State press conference before flying to Dallas the next day. It may have been his last appearance in Beaver Stadium — albeit in the media room — as a college player.

“I know what I’m going to do,” said Hamler, noting that he’ll announce his decision “right after the game.”

Hamler has until January 20, 2020 to declare for the NFL Draft. It’s likely, though, we’ll know his intentions minutes after the Cotton Bowl is over on Saturday.

WR VISION FOR 2020

If he goes pro, Hamler would be missed. Greatly.

He’s a clutch player. Hamler had his best games in Penn State’s biggest games over the past two seasons. His top four all-purpose performances were against Minnesota (208 yards, 2019), Ohio State (195, 2018), Iowa (188, 2018) and Michigan (186, 2019). He scored three TDs in those four games.

In his very first game in a Penn State uniform against Appalachian State in the 2018 season-opener, the 5-9, 176-pounder came up big as well. His 52-yard kickoff return in the final minutes set up the game-tying TD, which led to OT and a Penn State win.

Hamler led all Penn State receivers in receptions and yards in both 2018 (42-754) and 2019 (54-858). Overall, Nittany Lion wide receivers caught 112 passes in 2019 — meaning Hamler was on the receiving end of 48% of them.

Consider the departure of transfer-portalled Justin Shorter (12 receptions) and seniors Dan Chisena (3) and Weston Carr (3), and Gerad Parker’s WR room is very thin on experience, with just 40 catches returning in 2020 if KJ goes pro:

In 2019, Jahan Dotson had 24 catches for 462 yards, for a big 19.2-yared average, and four TDs. Then, the drop-off is precipitous. Cam Sullivan-Brown (ankle) and Daniel George (hand), both hit by injures, combined for 15 receptions, and baseball player Mac Hippenhammer had just one.

That’s a big reason why James Franklin breathed a huge of relief on November 30 (when tight end Pat Freiermuth announced he would return in 2020) and on December 18 (when five high school wide receivers officially committed to Penn State).

In two seasons, Freiermuth has caught 67 passes for 836 yards, with a big-time 15 TDs. Freiermuth, as much as anyone, knows that Penn State cannot just rely on its No. 1 receiver — whether it’s No. 1 or someone else.

Everyone knew quarterback Sean Clifford’s favorite targets were Freiermuth and Hamler (they accounted for 47% of Penn State’s 206 completions). That includes opposing defenses.

“That’s what we lacked at certain parts of the season, at certain receiver positions,” Freiermuth said. “There were inconsistencies, especially at X receiver. If we can get all five receivers — even our running backs — on the same page and complementing each other, it will only make the offense better.

“It obviously helps when defenses are able to bracket me or double cover me or double cover the slots and leave the guys (receivers) on the outside on islands. When they’re left on islands they have to make plays. That’s what we need to work on.”

LEADERSHIP: THERE’S A CATCH

Freiermuth thinks Dotson, who will be a junior in 2020, is ready to step up to the challenge.

“Han is a great receiver and a great offensive threat,” Freiermuth said. “He is really fast and explosive. He’s quick-twitched. Han will be ready to go.”

Dotson knows his time is now, whether Hamler is on the field or not. He didn’t manage more than two catches in key games against Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. He had just one reception for six yards against the Buckeyes, and only one vs. Rutgers (albeit for a TD) in the season finale.

“I’m trying to focus on this bowl game and finish out the year,” Dotson said last week, “to make this bowl game my best game of the year.”

Dotson realizes there is a chance he’ll the old guy in the WR room come January.

“That’s come to my mind a little bit,” Dotson said. “…People who know me know that I don’t say much. I just try to lead by example and show the younger guys what to do if they watch me in practice. Coach Parker always says before we go out to practice every day, ‘If someone was watching you, what would they want to emulate?’ I just try to go as hard as possible with every rep and lead by example.”

FAB FIVE?

Dotson will be joined by those five incoming freshmen wide receivers next season, as Franklin & Co. scoured heaven and earth to re-populate a unit that has lost a host of talented players over the past four seasons, including Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton, Saaed Blacknall and quite possibly Hamler to the NFL; Shorter, Juwan Johnson and Polk to the transfer portal; and DeAndre Thompkins.

LBU? Try We Are...WRU.

The incoming wide receivers are an eclectic group; they come from a junior college, a prep school, Canada, Virginia and Texas. The group features four-stars KeAndre Lambert-Smith (Virginia) and Parker Washington (Texas), and three-stars Norval Black (Lackawanna College), Jaden Dottin (Suffield Academy) and Malick Meiga (Quebec).

“I think they could actually come in and play right away,” Dotson said. “There are a lot of guys who are very talented. I’ve talked to Parker Washington and KeAndre. I think those two guys can come in and make a huge impact right away.”

The biggest challenge for the youngsters? Getting a handle on the offense, said Dotson, who knows a new offensive coordinator will be at least making some tweaks with PSU’s current RPO.

“I honestly didn’t learn the entire playbook until the middle of this year,” Dotson admitted. “First, when you come in you want to learn what you have to do individually. Then, as you do that and master that, you want to learn the concepts of the offense.

“I didn’t learn the concepts until this year. I just knew what I had to do: Learn those concepts, learn the playbook. That’s why I think JD and TJ (current freshmen John Dunmore and TJ Jones) will be great. If you can learn the playbook, you can play fast and don’t have to think about things.”

That last line sounds a lot like how Hamler plays now. And we’ll soon find out what he’s thinking about NFL things as well.



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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