Penn State's chances of rebounding this week from its loss to Ohio State improved with one word from James Franklin.
Asked Tuesday whether injured receiver KJ Hamler was expected to return for Saturday's matchup against Michigan State, the Penn State coach responded with an emphatic "Yeah."
That would be especially good news for the No. 8 Nittany Lions, who are facing a Spartans defense that ranks No. 1 in the nation against the run (33.8 yards per game) but an alarming 122nd against the pass (305.2 yards per game).
Hamler exited the fourth quarter of the Ohio State game after taking a shot to the head that resulted in a targeting ejection for Buckeyes safety Isaiah Pryor.
Prior to that, Hamler had four grabs for 138 yards, including a 93-yard catch-and-run off of a slant for a touchdown. On the play he was knocked out of the game, Hamler held onto a 36-yard catch despite the big hit to set up another score.
A native of Pontiac, Michigan, who had Michigan State as one of his three finalists in the recruiting process, Hamler leads the Lions in receiving yards (308) and touchdown catches (four) and is second in receptions (13). He also is 19th nationally on kick returns, averaging 26.2 yards per return.
Franklin rattled off a list of successful wideouts he's worked with over the years — Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt), Donald Driver (Green Bay Packers), Torrey Smith and Darrius Heyward-Bey (Maryland) and Jordy Nelson (Kansas State) — on top of Penn State's own record-holder, DaeSean Hamilton.
"Is KJ right up there with those guys and as impressive as a redshirt freshman I've been around? No doubt about it," Franklin said at his weekly press conference. "I think the thing that I probably like about KJ — just as much as how productive he's been — is he's an energy-giver. His ability to make meetings fun, to make practice fun, the locker room fun. Coaches want to be around him. Players want to be around him. And I think that's undervalued.
"KJ is what's great about college football. He's got an awesome mom and he's got an awesome dad that couldn't be more supportive of their son and couldn't be more supportive of Penn State and what we're doing here. He never asks for the ball. Just the opportunities he gets, he makes the most of them. He's a positive impact on his teammates, on the coaches, on the players, on this community."
Franklin and his players rarely get into specifics about injuries and timetables, so Juwan Johnson was careful not to guarantee Hamler's availability when speaking shortly after Franklin.
"Well, we're not talking about (having him back), but when he's on the field, he's pretty electric," Johnson said. "He gives you that confidence when you're next to him and you kind of feed off each other. When he's on the field, he's a big part of the offense."
Also expected to return Saturday is sophomore defensive end Shane Simmons, who has missed the first five games with a lower-body injury.
Simmons, who was stuck in a walking boot back in training camp, was in uniform for the first time against Ohio State but did not play.
Franklin said he's not sure yet how many reps Simmons will get, but he thinks the Maryland native — who was one of Penn State's top-rated recruits in the 2016 signing class — will be able to make a difference.
"We're really excited about having Shane back," Franklin said. "He's a guy this spring and this summer we were really excited and he has not been available up to this point. You know, we'll see how much he plays, but even if he can give us 10 to 15 plays on Saturday, and play those reps at a really high level, then I think it's a win for us.
"He's more of a complete player than he's been in the past. He's over 250 pounds. He always was a pass rusher, but now we think he's going to do a really, really good job, and playing the run, as well. So excited about that."
Coming out of the bye week, the Lions are perhaps as healthy as they've been this season as quarterback Tommy Stevens has returned and the team's committee of tight ends looks to be available now as well. Question marks still remain on the status of defensive tackle Ellison Jordan and cornerback Donovan Johnson.
From now until the end of the season, however, Simmons will have a chance to make the biggest impact out of that group.
"He's my roommate, so I know he's excited," linebacker Cam Brown said. "I can't wait to see him play. He's gonna have a lot of energy, and he's gonna be a force to be reckoned with."
This article is written by Derek Levarse from The Times Leader and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.