As we’ve passed the midway point in the college football season, a lot has taken shape in terms of emerging NFL Draft prospects. One minor surprise of the season has been Penn State’s 8-0 start and top 5 ranking, part of which has been led by dynamic playmaker KJ Hamler.
While slot receivers receivers aren’t usually the primary option for college offenses, Hamler is an exception. Despite his diminutive stature at 5’9 and 176 pounds, Hamler has 620 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns through 8 games.
His dynamic speed has been a weapon for the past two seasons for the redshirt sophomore, as he’s produced as both a receiver and return-man. Draft-eligible in 2020, Hamler has found himself on NFL radars with his productive season.
Let’s dig into the All-22 film.
On these two plays, Hamler is running a vertical route while being aligned in the left slot. On the first rep, he releases outside and uncovers vertically because of his acceleration. On the following play, he uses an outside “rocker” step to move the defensive back and separate by winning inside. Both reps ended in Hamler finishing through contact at the catchpoint, something that smaller receivers can struggle with.
One key for slot receivers projecting to the next level is the ability to expand their catch radius. Being able to fully extend, catch with natural hands and use body control to properly position themselves in the air can be an invaluable asset. While on the next play Michigan State was protecting the deep parts of the field before the end of the half, Hamler showed an expanded catch radius on a throw over his head.
Notice his hand placement, perfectly extending and keeping his hands in the shape of a diamond with the ball fitting in-between them. That shows a natural, easy ability to track the football.
While the prototype of a redzone target is that of a larger boundary receiver, slot types find success in tight spaces when their able to win inside on releases. Hamler, in that same game against Michigan State, showed off this ability because of his short-area quickness and acceleration through route breaks. At the top of this slant route, he flashes his eyes outside to hold the defensive back before sprinting to the middle of the field for the easy win.
Those fluid route breaks and ability to sell routes during his stem came up again against Iowa, as Hamler was working against press coverage from the left slot. He starts by closing down on the defensive back’s cushion before accelerating vertically and getting his eyes to the quarterback. Because he gained a step and sold the vertical route during the stem, the defensive back gets into “trail” mode, sprinting to try and match Hamler vertically. That is when Hamler is able to snap off his comeback route, stopping on a dime and accelerating towards the sideline to separate.
Over his career, Hamler has proven capable of breaking games open with his electrifying playmaking ability, whether that be tracking down deep balls or making plays after the catch. His speed is a weapon in the open field, with the best supporting evidence being his catch and run last season against Ohio State. Despite being covered by a great athlete in Buckeyes defensive back Shaun Wade, Hamler broke loose on a slant route and outran the pursuit for a 93-yard touchdown.
While Hamler has an already developed game for a redshirt sophomore, there can be lapses in his hands despite his ability to expand his catch radius. He’s been prone to some concentration drops over his career, including cases when he isn’t crowded or contested.
Hamler’s electrifying game should get him drafted early if he declares for the 2020 NFL Draft. His speed in space can lead to long touchdowns and stretch the defense despite being undersized. Look for his prospects to rise during the pre-draft process, as his athletic testing should be off the charts.