Punt returns by Penn State's K.J. Hamler draw both concern and praise

The (Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
Penn State's K.J. Hamler, seen here in an Associated Press file photo, has drawn both praise and concern for the way he handles his punt returns.

Typically smiling, frequently brash, K.J. Hamler stared ahead stoically. Maybe, even humbly.

“I’m never satisfied, to be honest,” Penn State’s star speedster said Saturday. “I could have done way better today, throughout the whole course of the game. I think I made some mistakes.

“I was taking a lot of risks that I shouldn’t have taken.”

The Nittany Lions’ 35-7 win over Purdue played out on a perfect fall afternoon, in the gleaming sunlight and through some increasing shadows. It proved to be a good microcosm of not just the game, but the early part of Penn State’s season. Hamler has basked in both the sunshine and shadows, as well.

Uneven effort vs. Purdue: A week after gaining national acclaim for his all-around play in a 59-0 trouncing of Maryland, Hamler admitted his performance against the Boilermakers rang through as uneven. In the first quarter, he caught a pretty 23-yard touchdown throw from quarterback Sean Clifford and had daring punt returns of 17 and 26 yards that set up scores. His early second-quarter block also sprung tight end Pat Freiermuth into the end zone on his 7-yard touchdown catch that gave Penn State its fourth touchdown in its first four possessions.

The rest of Hamler’s day didn’t go as well. He was the intended target on Clifford’s lone interception of the game in the second quarter, a pass badly underthrown, but also one Purdue cornerback Simeon Smiley noticed before Hamler turned his head and caught without a challenge from the Nittany Lions sophomore. Hamler was also stuffed on two rushing attempts, but he said his play on special teams concerned him more than any of that.

He returned four more punts in the game, lost yards on three of them and didn’t gain a yard on the other. On his final one, he let what appeared to be a catchable ball bounce backward, then hustled to pick it up just before Purdue special teams maven Zander Horvath drilled him. On two of those ill-fated returns, he got to his feet slowly. The last Purdue punt of the game, albeit with the Nittany Lions firmly ahead, was handled by fellow receiver Jahan Dotson.

Delicate balance: Therein lies the delicate balance for Hamler and any of the nation’s most dangerous punt returners. He’s admittedly like a slugger swinging for the fences every at-bat. Sometimes, as he did in the first quarter, he’s going to hit a grand slam. Other times, he’s going to swing and miss. The question for him is, how do you balance the occasional game-changing plays with setting the offense back a few yards more frequently?

“The way I put it, punt returning is a very hard skill; a lot of people think it’s easy,” Hamler said. “My punt return coach, Terry Smith, always says, ‘Be aggressive.’

“The way I take it is, if the gunners aren’t in my face, and I have room, I’m going to take the risk. Because I think I can make something out of nothing.”

Opponents have taken notice. Several Penn State foes this season have approached dealing with Hamler in different ways. Buffalo did its best to kick the ball as far away from him as it could, for instance. Pittsburgh and Maryland opted for optimal hang time on their punts. Kickoff men who can have simply drilled the ball out of the end zone.

Purdue punter Brooks Cormier took an even more unique approach. It seemed every punt was different. Some, he boomed. Others, he kicked short. He even varied the time it took for him to boot the ball from snap to catch. Once, it seemed as if he waited for pressure to get closer before squibbing the kick away. Another time, he rolled to one side of the field, then kicked it to the other. Penn State head coach James Franklin said that’s clearly a gameplan to help either take away Hamler’s aggression or, if possible, to make it work against him.

“People are a little concerned to punt the ball to K.J.,” Franklin noted. “Sometimes, when the ball is kicked that short and it’s inconsistent, you get some freaky plays like we had today. We need to be more consistent there.”