Bob Wojnowski and John Niyo preview UM-Notre Dame and MSU-Penn State on this week's College Football Show. The Detroit News
East Lansing — As KJ Hamler streaked down the field last week against Michigan, a barely 10-second blur from one end zone to the next, there had to be a Michigan State coach or fan wondering how good that might look in a green and white uniform.
The kickoff returned for a touchdown was called back in Penn State’s victory last Saturday, but the impact the former Orchard Lake St. Mary’s standout provides was impossible to ignore.
So, too, is the fact it looked at one time like Hamler was a good bet to be a Spartan.
However, in early December of 2016, Hamler, who by his senior season of high school was at IMG Academy in Florida, opted to head to Penn State, spurning the home-state team for James Franklin and the Nittany Lions.
“We offered him,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “Recruited him hard and all that.”
The decision to head to Penn State proved to be the right move for Hamler, the Big Ten offensive player of the week. He’s become one of the conference’s most explosive players and had 108 yards receiving with two touchdowns last week while his 4-yard run helped ice the game in the final minutes.
“Outstanding player and makes things happen,” Dantonio said. “Also on special teams, he's making things happen, as well as the kickoff returner, punt returner.
“K.J. is a guy that's been electrifying.”
There’s no doubt about that. At 5-foot-9 and 176 pounds, Hamler has flashed his speed while also proving his toughness, as evidenced by his first-down run late in the Michigan game. His seven touchdown receptions are the most in the Big Ten while he ranks fifth with 563 receiving yards and fifth with 121.4 all-purpose yards per game.
It all comes after a solid redshirt freshman season when Hamler had 42 catches for 754 yards and five touchdowns, numbers which help rank him 20th all-time at Penn State in receiving yards at 1,317. His 523 kickoff return yards last season also ranked sixth in Penn State history.
“K.J. Hamler No. 1, is a guy that to stop Penn State, you have to first and foremost stop him,” Dantonio said.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. As No. 7 Penn State (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) heads to Spartan Stadium for Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. kickoff, the Michigan State defense is reeling, giving up 72 points over its last two games.
“He’s playing some of the best ball he has in his career right now, so he’s really confident right now,” Michigan State junior cornerback Josiah Scott said. “He’s a real fast receiver, a quick-twitch guy that can win his one-on-ones, so you have to game plan around him and bring your A-game.”
Added Michigan State linebacker Joe Bachie, “Someone’s gotta get a reroute on him. You see teams who just press him man-to-man, and usually it doesn’t work in their favor. You gotta have someone underneath, you gotta have someone over the top. He’s an explosive player, he’s making big plays, he’s a game-changer. We gotta be ready, and I think we got a good game plan for him.”
Hamler was effective in last season’s matchup, catching five passes for 66 yards and a touchdown. This season, Hamler has helped sophomore quarterback Sean Clifford make the transition from Trace McSorley appear seamless.
Clifford is second in the Big Ten in passing yards per game at 248.9 and is eighth in the country in passing efficiency (169.1), completing 116 of 184 passes. His 16 touchdown passes rank second in the conference with seven of those going to Hamler.
“They’re an explosive offense,” Bachie said. “You’ve got to limit those plays. They rely on that. They’ve got a good receiver, a very explosive guy at quarterback and they’ve got a good connection with them right now. They’re using a lot of running backs, a different mix of things and they're just another good team top-10 team we’ve got to get ready for.
“Trace did a great job there, but Clifford is stepping up and they’re 7-0 right now. They're rolling right now.”
They’re rolling in large part because of the play of Hamler, something that must sting for the Spartans. Their offense lacks the speed and breakaway ability Hamler provides, making missing out in the recruiting process even more difficult.
Dantonio believes Michigan State (4-3, 2-2) has that type of the player on the roster in sophomore Jalen Nailor. However, Nailor appeared in just eight games last season and one this year because of injuries.
“We look for that type of production from our guys, as well,” Dantonio said. “We are getting some plays out of some of our guys, Darrell Stewart and different things, but K.J. is a guy that's been electrifying thus far, and has been a guy that can go the distance. So we've got to play.”