It’s not often a player so close to breaking a school record is an overlooked piece of a football team.
But that’s what DaeSean Hamilton is — a senior wideout 19 catches away from setting Penn State’s career receptions mark, and yet, without the attention go with it.
Ever since Hamilton’s Big Ten-leading 82 receptions as a freshman in 2014, his production has dipped significantly (45 catches in 2015, 34 in 2016). But to peg Hamilton as a fading star is unjust in the eyes of his coach and teammates.
With fall camp beginning Monday and the season only a month away, Hamilton figures to have a prominent role in 2017.
“You’re talking about a guy that two years ago led the league in receptions,” Penn State coach James Franklin said Tuesday at Big Ten media days. “You’re talking about a senior who’s paid his dues. You’re talking about a guy who’s seen the highs and lows and matured through all those things. He’s one of the better workers on our team in terms of preparation, physically and mentally. ... He’s a guy I can see us leaning on.”
Of course, there have been plenty of highs for Hamilton.
From the get-go, he had 11 catches and 165 receiving yards in his first-ever game for Penn State — a thrilling 26-24 win over Central Florida in the Croke Park Classic. It was the first of eight games in 2014 in which Hamilton had six or more catches.
Hamilton set a freshman record with 14 grabs against Ohio State and finished 2014 with the second-most receptions in Penn State single-season history.
Hamilton has yet to reach those numerical heights since. In 2016, he had only two games with more than three catches.
But Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki believes the dip in production doesn’t reflect the kind of player Hamilton is.
“People, they talked about his freshman year, and then we had other guys step up and people knock DaeSean for that because, maybe his production has decreased, but that’s just guys stepping up, and there’s only one football,” Gesicki said. “It’s not DaeSean’s fault that he doesn’t have 82 catches again. He works his tail off every single day. He’s done an excellent job this offseason, and I think he’s primed for a big season.”
Gesicki’s teammates on the defensive side of the ball agree.
Senior safety Marcus Allen called Hamilton “dynamic” and “explosive.” And, Allen added, “His route running is crazy.”
Linebacker and captain Jason Cabinda said Hamilton is “one of the hardest-working guys on the team.”
“That’s a guy who’s had one hell of a career,” Cabinda said. “He’s going to come back with redemption this year.”
Loaded receiver group: It won’t be easy to stand out in a loaded group at receiver. Downfield options Saeed Blacknall and DeAndre Thompkins return with big-bodied Juwan Johnson impressing in spring camp.
Replacing the production of Chris Godwin (59 catches, 982 yards, 11 touchdowns) is a tall task, though. While Hamilton isn’t a direct substitute for the outside threat — especially after being used in the slot last season — Franklin said those 59 catches, 982 yards and 11 touchdowns won’t come from one person.
It’s going to be a group effort, one that Hamilton can lead.
Sure, there have been lows — the touchdown drop at Pittsburgh last season and the dip in production — but, with eight catches and 118 yards in the Big Ten championship, Hamilton showed what he can still bring to the table.
He’s a vertical threat, polished route-runner and savvy vet. And the Nittany Lions believe he has a major role to play in Penn State’s defense of the conference title.
“It would not surprise me one bit if DaeSean has a huge year for us,” Franklin said. “I would love to see that for him and for us.”
John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9