“Man, I’m old,” TCU fifth-year senior quarterback Kenny Hill told Sports Illustrated in July.
College football quarterbacks aren’t supposed to get old. They’re supposed to redshirt as freshmen, take some backup reps as sophomores, and start for one, maybe two years before graduating or declaring for the NFL draft. Some make it in the league; most are forever remembered for the time when they were young, beautiful, and enrolled in ballroom dancing classes.
But Hill has had a unique career. In 2013 he was a backup for Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M. In 2014 he boomed, becoming a nationally known sensation following his staggering performance in a season-opening victory over South Carolina. By the end of that season he busted, landing a suspension for a violation of team rules and losing his starting job to Kyle Allen. In 2015 he transferred to TCU. In 2016 he started again, both literally and figuratively, earning the job as the program’s first-team quarterback. And now he’s a star for the Horned Frogs, who are 5-0, ranked sixth in the AP poll, and the Big 12’s best hope to win this season’s national title.
In the time that it’s taken Hill to get here, Manziel’s entire NFL career came and went. Steve Spurrier coached South Carolina in Hill’s breakout game; he’s been retired for two seasons. It seems like Hill has experienced the longest college football playing career possible, non-BYU-student-returning-from-his-two-year-Mormon-mission edition. But the strange thing is that he might just be getting started.
I’d be lying if I said that Kenny Hill is playing better in 2017 than he did in his first career start in 2014. That’d be practically impossible. You can’t get better than 44-of-60 passing for 511 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 52-28 win. Watch South Carolina become immensely sad:
In short order, Kenny emerged as the most well-known Texan Hill not employed in the business of selling propane and propane accessories. First people called him Kenny Football, à la Johnny Football, his predecessor. But Hill declined that nickname, noting that it belonged to Manziel, and said his favorite nickname was “Kenny Trill.” In the aforementioned SI article, Hill discussed how ridiculous it was that his offhand nickname preference comment turned into national news; he even got an ESPN push notification about it. Hill had been a pretty big deal in high school, winning a Class 5A Division I state championship at Southlake Carroll High. But that makes you Texas Famous. This made him nationally famous.
The September Heisman isn’t a real trophy, but if it were, it’d be a statue of Kenny Hill explaining to reporters what the word “trill” means. By October 2014, Trill had 1,745 yards passing (349 per game) with 17 touchdowns to just two interceptions. The Aggies were 5-0 and ranked no. 6 in the country.
Hill wouldn’t win another game at A&M. He threw six combined interceptions in three straight losses, the last of which was a 59-0 beatdown at the perpetual death machine that is Alabama. Hill was benched and then suspended for undisclosed reasons. The Aggies finished the year 8-5, and Hill transferred to TCU the following May.
There’s a good reason why college quarterbacks transfer so much. Backup linebackers, offensive linemen, running backs, cornerbacks, defensive ends, and tight ends all play. They’re used in specific packages, or at least provide rest for the starters who cycle in and out of the game. Backup quarterbacks don’t play. There’s only one QB on the field at a time, and generally little reason to take him out.
Yet those who leave are criticized. As the number of quarterback transfers has increased in recent years, the trend has been called an epidemic, and alarming. We’re told that this didn’t happen in the old days, when the players who were benched would work diligently to grow and take the starting job. Leaving is seen as disloyal to the program a player agreed to play for, and a sign that the player values instant gratification when he should put in the effort to develop. Millennials, man.
But looking at Hill’s career shows the virtue of transferring. He’s grown, which is hypothetically what college and football are supposed to help you do. It might be impossible to put up gaudier stats than he did in his first few games, but Hill is a different person now. He throws fewer interceptions; he has just three this year, after throwing 13 last season. Many around him have said that he’s matured, thanks in part to assistance from a TCU staff that prides itself on setting wayward young quarterbacks on the right path.
Virtually every big-name QB to play at A&M lately has transferred: The guy for whom Hill was benched, Kyle Allen, now plays for Houston; Kyler Murray started briefly for the Aggies in 2015 and now backs up Baker Mayfield at Oklahoma. Why would they stay? The Aggies have a senior quarterback on the roster, Jake Hubenak, and he opened the year as a third-stringer behind two freshmen. For some inexplicable reason, Hubenak remained glued to the bench in Week 1 as true freshman Kellen Mond went 3-for-17 passing and the Aggies blew a 34-point third-quarter lead in a 45-44 loss to UCLA.
Hill, meanwhile, leads a TCU squad that is the last remaining unbeaten Big 12 team. He’s reeled off back-to-back wins over ranked teams: Hill helped TCU down then–no. 6 Oklahoma State 44-31 in Week 4 and then recorded a passing touchdown, a rushing touchdown, and a receiving touchdown in a 31-24 takedown of then–no. 23 West Virginia:
Kenny Trill was once the quarterback of a 5-0 team that was ranked no. 6 in the nation. Now it’s Kenny Hill’s turn. He’s changed, and I’m willing to bet that his results in the second half of this season will, too.