K.J. Hamler always appears to be having the most fun in Penn State's pregame warm-ups. He's going nonstop, whether it's dancing to the music booming over the Beaver Stadium sound system or taking part in a variety of handshake routines with his teammates.
The redshirt freshman wide receiver fully enjoys playing football, but he's also determined to perform at his best. He has grown in his first season to being the Nittany Lions' primary playmaker, using his speed and agility to turn what looks like a short play into a long gain on a catch or a return.
"It's just something I love," the 5-foot-9, 176-pound Hamler said Wednesday, in a conference call with reporters. "You can't just go out and play football without having fun. It's always that mentality in the back of your head. You want to win, but at the same time, if you don't have fun with it, there's no point in playing football."
Head coach James Franklin likes the fun part of Hamler's game, which he called a good example of positive leadership.
"I think the thing that I probably like about K.J., just as much as how productive he's been, is he's an energy giver," he said. "His ability to make meetings fun, the locker room fun, coaches want to be around him, players want to be around him, and I think that's undervalued."
Hamler showed his big-play capability right away. With his team on the ropes in the season opener against Appalachian State, he caught a kickoff in the end zone and, after briefly hesitating, dashed for a 52-yard return that set up his game-tying, 15-yard touchdown catch with 57 seconds left in regulation. The Lions won the game in overtime.
He also turned a short slant pass against Ohio State from deep in Penn State territory into a 93-yard touchdown, sending the already juiced "White Out" crowd into a frenzy. He called that his favorite play of the season.
"I'm pretty proud of that," he said. "My favorite route is probably a slant. I like short routes, because I think I can take short routes for longer distances."
In 10 games, Hamler has accounted for 16 plays of 20 yards or longer – 10 pass receptions, four kickoff returns, one run, and one punt return. He raced 32 yards for a touchdown at Pittsburgh on the first rush of his college career and ripped off a season-high 67-yard kickoff return against Iowa.
Hamler leads the Lions in the three main receiving categories – 33 catches, 552 yards, five touchdowns – and in kickoff returns, with a 26.9-yard average.
He returned to competition after sitting out the previous two years recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, suffered before his senior year at IMG Academy in Florida. He had doubts during his idle time.
"I really felt like it was the end for me," Hamler said earlier this season of the injury. "What if I don't come back and be myself? What if I can't run like that? I just had to put my mind toward having a positive attitude and just coming to work every day and getting my knee better."
In learning the offense, he said he has taken pride in film study, taking notes and "just paying attention, so when I go on the field I won't be nervous, I'll be more comfortable with what I'm doing."
And while still having fun.
"You can have fun when you're on the field," he said, "but if you're having fun and not paying attention, that's not the right kind of fun you should be having. I think part of playing football is enjoying it."