By September, it will have been more than two years since K.J. Hamler played in a live game.
A serious knee injury wrecked the speedy receiver’s senior year in the first week of his 2016 high school season. That led to a redshirt when he arrived at Penn State in 2017.
So yeah, Hamler’s just a bit excited to show coaches and teammates what he’s capable of this spring.
“K.J., he’s probably the buzz of the camp right now with the players and the coaches,” Nittany Lions boss James Franklin told reporters in State College after a practice this week. “He’s just so quick and fast. Usually you get a guy that’s really fast or a guy that’s really quick. He’s both.”
The Lions are in need of a new slot receiver to replace the record-breaking DaeSean Hamilton, and Hamler will be in the mix for the job along with Brandon Polk. Both are essentially the same size — Polk is 5-foot-9, 171 pounds and Hamler is 5-9, 172 — with similar skill sets.
Hamler "on fire:" Polk has the advantage of entering his redshirt junior year and having some chemistry with quarterback Trace McSorley going back to their days together at Briar Woods High School in Virginia.
But the Lions may not be able to keep Hamler off the field this fall. His ability also makes him an option in the return game, something he excelled at for St. Mary’s High School in Michigan, the same school that produced All-America wideout Allen Robinson.
Hamler had transferred to noted football factory IMG Academy in Florida for his senior year but suffered a torn ACL during a preseason game that August.
Known for an outgoing and bright personality, Hamler has been able to impress with more than just his moves.
“K.J. right now is just on fire,” said DeAndre Thompkins, now entering his fifth year as the dean of the Lions’ receiving corps. “I’ve seen him behind me and (I’m) mentoring him. He’s taking every little knowledge and soaking it up. As a player, coachability is something a lot of people don’t have. And he has it.”
Franklin also commended him for his willingness to mix it up with defenders, calling him “a very good blocker on the perimeter, which you wouldn’t say that just looking at him.”
Room for improvement: Not that there isn’t room for improvement.
“He’s still not as efficient with his movements as he needs to be,” Franklin said. “But he’s an exciting prospect.”
With wideouts Hamilton and Saeed Blacknall having graduated — plus the losses of tight end Mike Gesicki and running back Saquon Barkley — Penn State must replace a whopping 181 catches, 2,341 receiving yards and 23 touchdown grabs from a year ago.
Thompkins and Juwan Johnson are expected to make up for the bulk of the production, but the opportunity is also there for Polk, Hamler and fellow redshirt freshmen Mac Hippenhammer and Cam Sullivan-Brown. Penn State will also add the top-rated receiver in the country from the 2018 recruiting class — Justin Shorter — in June along with two four-star prospects in Jahan Dotson and Daniel George.
Key year for Polk: Polk is the oldest of that group, returning from an injury that cost him his 2016 season to catch 10 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown in 2017.
“This is a huge spring and summer for him,” Franklin said. “We need him to step up big time for us. Obviously we all know he can play in space. He’s gotta get stronger. And he’s going to have to take advantage of these opportunities here.
“But he’s a guy that we need to step up big-time for us. He’s been in the program long enough, and he’s got enough ability to do it.”
According to Thompkins, the group all has one thing in common.
“They’re working on their weaknesses now,” Thompkins said. “That’s one thing I’m proud of them in. That’s one thing last year a lot of us — me, Ham, Saeed and all of us — prided ourselves in. Taking our weakness and making it our strength.
“Those guys really took that this spring and they’re transforming into different players.”