ORLANDO – Any highlight package of Penn State’s 2018 football season, one would think, must lead off with the 93-yard touchdown pass from Trace McSorley to K.J. Hamler against Ohio State, a play that excited an already hyper “Whiteout” audience at Beaver Stadium.
You remember the pass: a short slant pattern where Hamler received the ball at Penn State 15 and outraced the Buckeyes secondary to the end zone. Hamler remembered, calling it “probably my favorite” highlight.
“Stuff just happened,” he said Sunday. “It’s just all instincts. You really don’t know what’s going to happen.”
But Hamler hasn’t rested on just that one electrifying moment from a September game as his calling card in his first year of competition for the 12th-ranked Nittany Lions. The redshirt freshman wide receiver and return man has given Penn State fans their share of thrills, and hopes to give them more in Tuesday’s Citrus Bowl against No. 14 Kentucky.
“I don’t really look back on it a lot,” Hamler said before he and his teammates joined Kentucky players in hosting children at Fun Spot America Theme Park. “I focus on the next week. But I’ve got to do anything I can to contribute to the team, to help out my team. It’s a team game, it’s not just about one person. Anything I can do to contribute to the team is always good.”
Hamler has been involved in 25 plays of 20 yards or longer this season – 14 pass receptions, eight kickoff returns, one punt return, one run, and one lateral. He leads the team with 41 catches, 713 yards, a 17.4-yard average and five touchdowns, and a 26.0-yard average on kickoff returns.
The Pontiac, Mich., resident leads the Lions with 111.3 all-purpose yards per game and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors for his work as a receiver and as a return man.
The college game has been an adjustment for Hamler, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during his senior season at IMG Academy and redshirted his first year at Penn State.
“I learned that the game is way faster than high school,” he said. “I just really had to mature as a player, as a person, and just step up and take on a big role. We’ve still got a lot of work to do, still got one more game, so I’m focused on Kentucky right now.”
Another part of his maturity is making good decisions on kickoff returns. Few Penn State fans will forget Hamler catching a kickoff 5 yards deep in the end zone and returning it 52 yards to set up his tying touchdown catch that forced overtime in a season-opening win over Appalachian State. But it’s not the norm.
“Every time I touch the ball, I try to score,” he said, “but also I’ve got to be smart with the decisions I make, but I’ve also got to be aggressive at the same time. So any little chance I get to help get the team a spark in a game, I’m going to take it.”
Penn State special teams coordinator Phil Galiano said he likes that thought, but it’s a part of Hamler “understanding and maturing in the decision-making process.”
“We want him to have the ball in his hands every opportunity we can,” he said. “We think he can score every time he touches the ball. But we also know that we have to make good decisions for the outcome of the team.
“Make no doubt about it, when we can get the ball in his hands, we want him to be able to get the ball and go score with it.”