Meet KJ Hamler, Penn State's Brash and Blistering Emerging Star
IMG Academy is not your typical high school. It touts itself as the world’s foremost authority in athletic, academic and personal development. From an expansive, shimmering campus in Bradenton, Florida, the school provides athletes with a college experience in nearly every sense. For instance, the Ascenders football team, just like many college programs, uses GPS-like sensing devices attached to players to monitor their practice output. Based on data from those devices, IMG coach Kevin Wright knows that a normal receiver during a usual practice covers about 2,800-3,000 yards of ground. However, during his seven years as coach, one guy averaged more than any other. “KJ’s was something off the charts,” says Wright. KJ Hamler averaged about 4,200 yards. “He was doing the same drills as everyone else,” says Wright, “but he never walks anywhere and he’d catch the ball and run an extra 10 yards.”
Some might call KJ Hamler cocky. Others might say he’s confident. But everyone that’s seen him play agrees: He’s damn good. “We all know that he’s a difference maker,” says Hamler’s current college coach, Penn State’s James Franklin. “More times KJ can touch the ball, we’re going to like what happens.” On Friday night just north of the nation’s capital city, Hamler gave a national audience a taste of what might be in store for his redshirt sophomore season. Among the many exploits of Penn State’s 59–0 dismantling of Maryland was the emergence—for those who hadn’t seen him before—of a 5 foot 9, 176-pounder who appeared to be faster, quicker and, well, better than anyone else on the football field.
Meet Kahlee Jacoby Hamler, the 12th-ranked Nittany Lions’ blistering, brash ball of energy. After his six-catch, 108-yard outing against the Terrapins—one that included a meandering 58-yard score—a postgame exchange between Hamler and a reporter unfolded during a scrum of media.
Reporter: Do you feel like you can score every time you get your hands on the ball?
Hamler: “Because I can.”
If you don’t like Hamler’s style, don’t ask him silly questions. And don’t harass him during pregame warmups either. That’s what Maryland students did Friday night in College Park. An hour later, on his stride through the end zone, he blew a kiss in the direction of the student section and yelled toward them, “Love y’all too!” When a reporter afterward suggested that he showed some “new” moves during that tackle-breaking touchdown, a stoic Hamler corrected the questioner, “That’s not new. That’s regular.”
If you don’t know much about Hamler, that’s O.K. He didn’t play his final season of high school football after tearing his ACL, and he then redshirted as a true freshman at Penn State to continue recovery from said injury. Last year, during a somewhat forgettable season in State College, when the Nittany Lions lost a bowl game to Kentucky and were out of the championship chase by October, Hamler somewhat quietly set a PSU freshman record for all-purpose yards, topping the previous mark set by a guy named Saquon Barkley. Already through four games this year, he’s got 465 all-purpose yards: 353 receiving and 112 as a return man.
He ranks among the top 15 nationally in yards per reception (22.06), mostly because of his run-after-catch skills, the ones he’s be honing since age 4. Thomas Hamler, a junior college player back in his day, trained his son at an early age. Little KJ maneuvered among cones in the backyard, climbed up hills down the street and even ran with a parachute attached to him, his mother says. KJ was an avid lacrosse player, ran track and tried basketball. The latter didn’t work. “He was too fast,” says mom Latonya Hamler, “he always double-dribbled because he out ran the ball.” Nothing stuck quite like football despite his modest size (he weighed about 160 pounds as a senior at IMG, Wright says).
In fact, KJ’s mother cannot watch her son play. Latonya attends every game, but she’s often purposely buried in her smart phone. She catches the replays on the jumbotron. KJ is often the smallest player on the field, surrounded by 11 men, some of them weighing nearly twice his weight and all of them attempting to maul her son. The only thing keeping her sane is his speed. “I trust he’s going to run really fast and break out every move he needs too,” Latonya says. “I always get nervous when he runs a slant, ‘Oh god, that safety is going to kill him.’” On Friday night, his spectacular touchdown came on—you guessed it—a slant. He beat cornerback Kenny Bennett off the line, broke the tackle of safety Deon Jones and out-raced another defender downfield, boasting some nasty stop-and-start moves along the way.
KJ is fast, very, very fast. This past spring, Penn State coaches clocked KJ’s 40-yard dash speed at 4.28 seconds. The best 40-yard dash at this year’s NFL combine was 4.29 seconds. His blistering speed is one thing, his shake-and-bake moves are another. “To see him do what he does is amazing,” says running back Journey Brown. “I like to think of myself as a good football player, but the stuff he does even surprises me. It’s amazing.” And about his size, KJ lets his Twitter bio do the talking. A permanent message on it reads, “They measured my HEIGHT...they measured my WEIGHT...but they never measured my HEART!”
KJ models his game after a trio of receivers. DeSean Jackson is his favorite player, Steve Smith is where he gets that “dog mentality,” he says, and Stefon Diggs is the route-running king. Put all three together, and you’ve got KJ Hamler. “I’m just an electric player,” he says. “Getting me in space is dangerous for teams.” Penn State coaches have figured that out. Franklin has talked so much about involving KJ early and often that the player learned of his heavy role against Maryland from media coverage last week ahead of the game. The role should only expand from here, Franklin says.
The Nittany Lions (4–0) embark soon on a do-or-die stretch of conference games. They host Purdue this Saturday before playing Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State, all three ranked in the top 25. For KJ and his family, the Michigan and Michigan State games on Oct. 19 and Oct. 26 are special. He grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. For the last two decades, his mother has worked for automaker titan Ford. At one point, she thought her son would be staying home for college. Latonya was so confident that she told Michigan State coaches that KJ was East Lansing bound. Everything changed about his recruiting on Aug. 20, 2016, when on IMG Academy’s first possession of the first quarter of the first game, KJ planted, twisted and collapsed to the ground. IMG trainers phoned Latonya and Thomas, both in the stands that night. Come down here right now.
They arrived to the locker room to their son lying on a table and a doctor poking at his exposed knee, its contents freely wiggling around. It’s torn. “KJ screamed and bawled. I had to walk out of the room,” Latonya says. “So many things go through your head. Scholarships… spent all this money and time on sending him down to IMG. But I don’t regret it.” Some schools backed out on KJ, says Wright. Penn State wasn’t one of them. His lead recruiter, Josh Gattis, was the only college assistant to call Latonya a day after the injury, she says. That’s what makes the Michigan game so special—Gattis is now the Wolverines offensive coordinator. There’s plenty of work to do before that meeting, of course. The Boilermakers come to town and then the Lions travel to play the Hawkeyes. Along the way, the spotlight on KJ is sure to grow brighter and brighter with each snazzy return and swanky touchdown. KJ doesn’t mind. “It’s a blessing to have attention, but I don’t like changing up or acting different to friends. Try to stay true to myself and stay the same,” he says. “I look at myself as a regular degular guy.”
Is he really that regular? Maybe not. In fact, his mother shares a unique story about her son that she enjoys telling. It makes people laugh, including KJ. During her pregnancy, doctors told Latonya that she’d be having a girl. Friends and family members threw her two baby showers, where she received what you’d expect a soon-to-be-mother of an infant girl to get: pink everything. Days before her due date, she visited the doctor for an ultra sound and they found that the umbilical cord was wrapped around, they said, his neck.
Whose neck? I’m having a girl.
No, you’re not.