K.J. Hamler has trust issues.
Well, in his words, the 19-year-old deals with “real bad trust issues.” Those were put to the test this offseason.
Less than 24 hours after the Citrus Bowl, Penn State fired assistant coach David Corley. A week later, former Duke assistant Gerad Parker was hired to be Hamler’s third wide receiver coach in as many years. And days after that, Juwan Johnson and Brandon Polk — a pair of elder statesmen in Penn State’s receiver room — announced their decisions to transfer.
This offseason took a toll on Hamler; he didn’t shy away from admitting that after Wednesday’s practice. But Hamler doesn’t have time to wallow, and he knows that. While the redshirt sophomore may have trust issues, the Nittany Lions are counting on him, trusting in him, to not only produce like a veteran, but also take the reins of the receiver room in 2019 and lead.
“It’s weird going from a rookie to a vet real quick. But I have to play that role. I have to step in for the young guys,” Hamler said. “Last year was my first year playing, but I probably have the most experience.”
Breakout season: He’s right, too. After redshirting in 2017 as he recovered from a significant knee injury, Hamler started every game last season. He led the Nittany Lions in receptions and receiving yards, while electrifying on kick returns and earning the distinction of finalist for the Paul Hornung Award, given to the nation’s most versatile player.
It was quite a breakout year for Hamler. But, up until now, he never really had to lead in Happy Valley. Trace McSorley guided the offense. Hamler watched as DaeSean Hamilton set the tone in 2017, while Johnson, Polk and DeAndre Thompkins worked to uphold that standard last season.
Youngsters need to step up: This go-round is a bit different. Penn State will feature a young team, a new quarterback and inexperienced receivers in 2019. The success of the passing game doesn’t fall squarely on Hamler’s shoulders, but he’ll have to mentor several young wideouts. Head coach James Franklin mentioned several by name Wednesday.
“Jahan Dotson has played a lot of football, but we need him to take another step,” Franklin said. “The Daniel Georges and the Justin Shorters of the world, they got to play a little bit last year, but not enough. Really, their maturity from now until camp is going to be really important.”
Shorter, a former five-star prospect, has the hype but not the reps. George caught a 95-yard touchdown pass against Kent State, and that about the extent of his 2018 impact. Meanwhile, Dotson appeared in eight games and made four starts — not “a lot of football” by normal standards, but relatively speaking, the sophomore is seasoned.
The Nittany Lions aren’t done adding to their receiver room, either. Mac Hippenhammer, who is spending the spring with the baseball team, is expected to return in the summer. A pair of 2019 signees, John Dunmore and TJ Jones, will arrive for fall camp. Penn State is bringing in Florida State transfer George Campbell, and Franklin said the staff is keeping “our eyes open and looking around” for more help at the position.
Hamler the constant: New coach, fresh faces and a level of uncertainty. The constant? Hamler.
Hamler said he talks to Hippenhammer every day to make sure he’s up to speed on the playbook. He spoke with Jones and Dunmore on Tuesday, too, helping them with the terminology and offering tips on how to read coverages in their specific roles. Dunmore will play on the outside, while Jones is a potential backup in the slot. Luckily for them, Hamler dabbled at both positions in 2018.
A playmaker: He might do the same in 2019, too. In fact, Hamler ought to be all over the field next season. Perhaps underutilized last year — Hamler caught his first screen pass of the season in November against Wisconsin — the playmaker who believes he’ll one day run a 4.25-second 40-yard dash will be a hefty part of Penn State’s offense.
“On offense, it’s all about touches. How many touches does a Saquon Barkley get? How many touches does a Miles (Sanders) get? How many touches does KJ get?” Franklin said when asked about player usage. “If you’ve got a really good football team with a lot of depth, sometimes that doesn’t really factor in. When you’ve got a young football team, when you’re waiting for some guys to make the next step, then you have to lean on your playmakers a little bit more than normal.”
Added Hamler: “I have to do whatever it takes to produce for this team. ... When the opportunity comes my way, I have to make a statement with it.”