FORT WORTH, Texas — When Kenny Hill first got to TCU, after a semester away from the big-college atmosphere, he thought his new teammates might have their own idea of “Kenny Trill” — his quarterback alter ego who had a dynamic debut succeeding a Heisman Trophy winner at Texas A&M, and also a quick downfall.
So Hill kept his head down, didn’t say much and just tried to prove he was deserving of the second chance.
“He came in being very humble. As soon as he came in, you could tell he came in trying to prove himself through his work ethic to gain our trust and confidence,” senior receiver Deante’ Gray said Tuesday. “He’s been very transparent with everybody, very open in talking to everybody and just becoming a Frog.”
On Saturday, Hill is starting for 13th-ranked TCU in its season opener at home against South Dakota State. And he is “beyond grateful” to coach Gary Patterson and the Horned Frogs for the opportunity on college football’s highest level again.
Hill hasn’t played since replacing Johnny Manziel for the 2014 season, which opened with him setting a Texas A&M single-game record with 511 yards passing in a 52-28 win at South Carolina in primetime. The Aggies started 5-0, but then lost three straight while Hill struggled. Later, he was suspended two games for violating team rules and didn’t play again.
Instead of immediately going to TCU, Hill spent the 2015 spring semester taking classes at a junior college near his home in nearby Southlake, Texas, spending time with family and also visiting Horned Frogs practices in the spring.
“It just allowed me to like reflect and really find out more about myself and grow as a person,” said Hill, the son of former major league pitcher Ken Hill. “And it gave me a chance to like to go back to church, and get right with the man upstairs something, which is something I needed.”
After the fast success with the Aggies, people started calling him “Kenny Football” in line with Manziel’s moniker. The quarterback instead preferred “Kenny Trill” — a play off the hybrid hip-hop adjective combining true and real. His parents even sought a trademark to the nickname.
“It was crazy, blowing up overnight like that,” Hill said. “It’s something like you always dream of and you always want, but at the same time, I wasn’t really ready for it yet.”
Hill’s suspension for violating team rules was his second at Texas A&M. The previous spring, before becoming the starter as a sophomore, Hill was arrested in College Station and charged with public intoxication and giving police a fake name. He was reinstated before training camp and allowed to compete for the starting job.
After Hill left College Station, one of his former high school coaches reached out to Sonny Cumbie, the TCU co-offensive coordinator who was at Texas Tech when he recruited the Texas prep state champion. Hill then met with Patterson, who already knew what happened but wanted to hear it from the young quarterback.
“That was probably the toughest thing is just going back and talking through all that,” Hill said
Patterson encouraged Hill to attend junior college to get out of the limelight, “kind of below the surface.” He wasn’t going to be able to play for TCU last season anyway because of NCAA transfer rules.
“He needed to get back and just get back to being Kenny Hill, the kid I knew when I recruited him out of high school,” Patterson said. “I did it more for the betterment for him, than it was me. Obviously you’d to like to get him in, but it was one of those things, you didn’t need to have kids here asking questions.”
Cumbie, the TCU quarterback coach, said Hill seems more guarded since high school. But Cumbie also sees a player that has matured and is motivated to prove his early success at Texas A&M was no fluke.
He’s already proven himself for real to some at TCU. All-Big 12 defensive end Josh Carraway said it can be frustrating chasing the elusive quarterback in practice.
“They call it a sack, but in my head, I’m thinking no way I got him,” Carraway said, about when the whistle blows stopping plays. “There’s no way, nobody’s catching him.”