Every spring, there’s at least one Penn State player who seems to generate a buzz during spring practices.
Sometimes it’s a walk-on, or in the case of last spring it was wide receiver Juwan Johnson, who by the estimations of teammates and coaches was the overwhelming favorite to be in line for a breakout campaign. It held true for Johnson, who hauled in 54 catches for 701 yards and a touchdown last season, a noticeable upgrade in output and opportunities after just 2 receptions during limited game reps the year before.
The darling of spring ball this season is speedy redshirt freshman wide receiver KJ Hamler. The Pontiac, Mich., native who completed his high school career at Florida’s IMG Academy and then arrived in Happy Valley last January, has the chance to add a different dimension to this receiving corps.
At 5-9, 172 pounds, Hamler might supplant DeAndre Thompkins as the fastest player on the team and will push Brandon Polk for playing time. Thompkins’ 4.34-second 40-yard dash from the winter of 2017 — a mark that was second fastest on the team only behind Saquon Barkley’s 4.33, numbers that still hang on the team’s big boards in the weight room — perhaps is in jeopardy.
“He’s so quick and so fast,” Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said of Hamler this spring. “Usually you get a guy who is really fast or a guy who is really quick and he’s both. He’s still not even as efficient with his movements as he needs to be, but he’s an exciting prospect.”
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When Hamler arrived at Penn State, he was a prime candidate for a redshirt as he was coming off a knee injury that ended his senior season early. Penn State had plenty of other options, and Hamler used the time in the weight room to prepare for his collegiate debut. Teammates have noticed his work this spring, and one play was all Thompkins needed to see to reaffirm that Hamler is as the senior put it, “a lightning bolt.”
“He caught a post in cover 2, and he was gone,” Thompkins said. “As soon as the ball was in the air, you knew it was a touchdown.”
Polk’s progress will be worth monitoring the rest of this spring as well. Ahead of the first spring practice, Franklin said Polk was listed as the starter for the time being, but was quick to add there would be “tremendous competition” at the position.
By the sounds of it, that competition has unfolded this spring.
“Brandon is kind of like Coop [Jake Cooper] and some of these other guys who have been here for a while and who has had little nicks and nags that have held him back throughout his career,” Franklin said. “This is a huge spring and summer for him. We need him to step up big time for us. Obviously we all know he can play in space. He’s got to get stronger and he’s going to have to take advantage of these opportunities right now. He’s a guy we need to step up big time for us and he’s been in the program long enough and has enough ability to do it.”