Penn State Football: The Real KJ Hamler That Even James Franklin Didn’t Know
You may think you know KJ Hamler.
But you don’t.
Yes, KJ is lots of glitz and dancing and talking trash. And speed.
KJ was the star of spring camp, flashy with diamond stud earrings and a gold chain #1, then stole the show on hype videos and summer practice glimpses and a constant stream of teammate shout-outs.
That's KJ Hamler, right?
Well, yes. And no.
James Franklin thought he had the redshirt freshman receiver from Pontiac, Mich., all figured out.
But the Penn State head coach didn’t. Not totally.
He knew the 5-foot-9, 173-pounder was a two-year letterman at Orchard St. Mary’s, the alma mater of Nittany Lion superstar Allen Robinson before transferring to the IMG Academy in 2016 for his senior season.
And Franklin knew that even after Hamler tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus that Penn State still wanted him. Hamler came to Penn State in January 2017 and sat out last season. And after watching Hamler rehab and seeing his performances in practice and scrimmages punctuated with an infectious upbeat attitude and confidence/cockiness (he wears No. 1, after all), Franklin continued to know all about Hamler. And believe in him.
So much so, in fact, that Franklin installed Hamler as a starting wide receiver— alongside seasoned vets DeAndre Thompkins and Juwan Johnson — vs. App State, even though it was Hamler’s first real, live game since being injured at the very start of the 2016 season.
“We got a lot of belief in KJ and have for a long time,” Franklin said after Penn State defeated Appalachian State, 45-38, in overtime Saturday in Beaver Stadium.
BEING KJ HAMLER
The Hamler that Franklin saw in the first half against App State was not the KJ that CJF thought he knew. Quarterback Trace McSorley threw three passes to Hamler in the game’s first 30 minutes, completing two — for 6 yards and 1 yard. Hamler also fielded three kickoffs in the first half, all deep in the Penn State end zone, all of them touchbacks.
Hamler was quiet on the stat sheet, on the field and on the sidelines.
Franklin knew something was wrong.
Having a talk with Hamler was “one of the things I tried to do with KJ around halftime. He hadn’t said a word, and I think you guys know the only thing faster than KJ’s feet is his mouth,” revealed Franklin. The conversation went like this, according to Franklin after the game:
Franklin: “You need to start talking and having fun, because I’m not seeing that.”
Hamler: “Oh, I’m locked in.”
Franklin: “No, I want you to practice the same way you play in games. You don’t act like this in games, so start having some fun, start enjoying yourself.”
Not too much later, Hamler, as we know, had a fourth quarter for the ages.
He had 113 yards of total offense in a span of 11 minutes. A deep route where Hamler laid out all 69 of his inches in horizontal fashion went for 46 yards and led to a touchdown. His late-game 52-yard kickoff return that began with a clash of wills in the student section end zone — “Should I stay or should I go?” And his 15-yard TD catch of a McSorley rocket that, with the PAT, tied the game at 38-38 with 42 seconds remaining (watch it below).
WHAT HAPPENED TO HAMLER?
Did Franklin kickstart KJ? Or was it just a matter of time, of circumstance, of potential finally meeting possibilities for Hamler?
The head coach himself openly wondered about it post-game: “I don’t know if that’s what did it or not.”
KJ Hamler, who confidently knows Kahlee Jacoby Hamler — and both his arduous road back from injury and his love of a football life — says it did not.
“He thinks I’m the type of player — because I talk a lot of stuff in practice — that I’m like that on the field” in a game, said Hamler, getting dead-serious. “When I talk stuff in practice, I do it for the fun. I do it with my boys. I’ve never been the type to talk stuff in a game. I’m just centered. I’ll just show you by my actions.”
The head coach knows that now.
“I didn’t freak him out,” Hamler said. “He’ll learn. He’ll learn. I just played (in the second half). They gave me opportunities. I had to take them.”
SPEAKING IN CONFIDENCE
It’s impossible to spell “charisma” without most of the letters in “Hamler.” His appeal is strong, his confidence natural, his self-assurance borne not of his success as a high school star or his natural abilities. Rather it is the creation and the culmination of an 18-month journey back from some very serious injuries.
“Just never give up,” Hamler said after the game — likely meaning both his comeback and the quiet first half that had Franklin so alarmed. “There are always going to be tough times. We all went through some tough times. You don’t give up. You fight through it. Enjoy the process. It will work in your favor at the end of the day. It took me about a year-and-half — spring ball — to feel like myself.”
“How did you know?” Hamler was asked.
“I really didn’t know,” he replied. “Just the plays I would make or the things I would do or how I would cut a certain way. I just knew I was back.”
Curious about the bounds of his self-confidence, I followed-up with, “Is this what expected today?”
“Yeah, yeah. Uh-huh.”
You never had a doubt?
So yes, KJ Hamler knew. And on Saturday night, so did everyone else.