FORT WORTH, Texas — TCU’s Kenny Hill has been here before.
The perfect start. The rising expectations. The fame that comes with being the quarterback of a top-10 team in Texas.
“I didn’t handle success the right way the last time,” Hill said of his first stab as a starting quarterback at Texas A&M. “We’re 5-0 right now. We also started that year off 5-0 at A&M. I’ve been at this point and seen where it could go, and really, where we’re trying to keep it from going.”
Following in the footsteps of Heisman Trophy winning-quarterback Johnny Manziel, Hill passed for a school-record 511 yards in his first college start for Texas A&M, a 52-28 win over South Carolina. As the Aggies rolled to five straight wins during that 2014 season, Hill’s legend continued to grow.
Three losses and six interceptions later, Hill found himself suspended for the second time in the calendar year and without the starting job.
Kenny Hill Jr. isn’t into nicknames these days. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
This time, Hill has vowed that it will be different.
“It’s about understanding who you are and what has gotten all of us here, the hard work, the extra throwing, the extra film study, all the little things,” Hill said. “You’ve got to keep doing those things because you can’t stop now.”
Hill transferred to TCU following the 2014 season. After sitting out in 2015, he stepped in last year as TCU’s starting quarterback, a season in which the Horned Frogs finished 6-7 and Hill experienced his share of ups and downs. He passed for 3,208 yards and 17 touchdowns, but also threw a Big 12-high 13 interceptions and was victimized by dropped passes. TCU coach Gary Patterson said he blames himself for some of Hill’s travails last season.
“I was probably too hard on him last year,” Patterson said. “As much as anything, he understands and we understand as a team that your quarterback doesn’t have to win games for you. He’s had a chance to grow into what we do, and I haven’t put as much on him.”
For starters, the Horned Frogs are running the ball 60 percent of the time this season, and Hill, now a fifth-year senior, has spread the ball around to his playmakers. He’s completing 69 percent of his passes, ranking him 10th nationally, and he’s 21st nationally with a 154.4 passing efficiency rating. He’s passed for 1,153 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions through five games and is completing 65.2 percent of his passes on third down with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
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What’s more, his ability to run and create have softened up defenses and opened up things for his teammates. On the game-winning drive against West Virginia last Saturday, Hill completed two third-down passes and then bulled his way into the end zone on third-and-goal from the 3.
“If I go out there and do my job and get the ball in these guys’ hands, they’re going to make plays, and that’s how this offense goes,” Hill said. “That’s something in the past that I didn’t really understand. I thought I had to go out there and win every game and make every throw. At A&M, I was thinking, ‘I am the next Johnny.’ But now, it’s finding the easy one or the matchups you want and letting those guys work because we have talented guys on this team.”
Hill has gone out of his way to shun the spotlight at TCU, although anybody who saw his three-touchdown performance in the 31-24 win over West Virginia might disagree. He became only the fourth player in Big 12 history to have a passing touchdown, rushing touchdown and receiving touchdown in the same game.
“He’s just a great player and exciting to watch,” TCU senior defensive tackle Chris Bradley said. “Saturday was amazing what he did. He’s been very calm and patient out there, and when we need a play, he’s there to make it.”
Hill jokes that he’s actually become pretty boring. These days, his idea of celebrating after games is going to dinner with his parents, preferably at a place that doesn’t have televisions. He’s sworn off Twitter and has no interest in reading articles about himself or listening to glowing commentary.
“I go eat and chill with my parents and then head back to the house and turn on whatever game is on,” Hill said. “I’m not the old Kenny Hill — when I couldn’t wait for the game to be over so I could go out and do something.”
Nope, instead of spending time on the town, he’s more interested in spending time in the film room or talking to teammates about pass routes, checks or different ways to attack opposing defenses. He and receiver John Diarse were texting soon after the West Virginia game about plays they thought might work this Saturday against Kansas State.
“A lot of what Coach P tries to tell me … is that you’ve got to perfect everything, be good at everything, on and off the field,” Hill said. “Find your weaknesses and work on them. If you’re not as good at something, you’ve got to work on it instead of going out there and trying to hide what you’re not as good at.”
And, yes, Hill has noticed a difference in Patterson this season.
Hill says his coach, Gary Patterson, doesn’t yell as much as he stares this season. LM Otero/AP Photo
“Coach P is a yeller. That’s how he is,” Hill said, chuckling. “I had that a little bit in high school, but it’s not something I’ve ever really responded to. I’m a pretty laid-back person. So this year, I know when he wants me to do something differently because he will walk over right to where the signal guys are, where he knows I can see him, and will just sit there and stare at me. And I’ll be like, ‘All right, coach, I know, I know. I got it.’
“So, yeah, it’s been different this year. He hasn’t yelled at me as much. He’s definitely pulled back. We have a better relationship this year because we’ve been together, and you keep growing. It’s been cool and a lot of fun. We understand each other.”
Hill has also heeded his dad’s advice. Ken Hill Sr. pitched for 14 seasons in the major leagues and didn’t pull any punches with his son when he landed at TCU.
“He told me to put my head down and work, that this was my last chance,” Hill recounted. “That’s what I’ve tried to do, put my head down and work and make the best of this chance.”
And as far as any catchy new nicknames?
“None. Kenny Hill Jr., and that’s it,” Hill said behind a convincing smile.