College Sports

August 20, 2014

Silent Kenny Hill focused on making big splash as Johnny Manziel’s replacement at A&M

Coaches, players say QB’s edge in experience makes him right choice as new Aggies’ leader.

For the foreseeable future, Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill prefers to let his actions speak for themselves in efforts to replace departed folk hero Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner.

Hill, a sophomore from Southlake Carroll, won the job Saturday after a protracted battle in fall camp. But he did not take part in Wednesday’s news conference at the player’s request, said an A&M spokesman.

On multiple occasions this fall, Hill has indicated to A&M officials that the earliest media session he is willing to consider would be after he makes his first collegiate start, at 5 p.m. Aug. 28 at No. 9 South Carolina (SEC Network).

Until then, it will be up to coaches and teammates to explain why Hill gives No. 21 A&M a better chance to win its high-profile opener than Kyle Allen, the five-star freshman signee who is now his backup. Basically, the answer boils down to one word: experience.

Hill has some at the college level. Allen does not.

“That was one of the deciding factors for us,” A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said Wednesday. “He’s seen more than Kyle has right now. The experience of being here and understanding what we do offensively and watching Johnny operate has helped him out a lot. Kenny has seen these guys run routes in games. He knows what they’re good at and he knows which checks to use to get the ball to them.”

As the offensive play-caller for a road underdog trying to upset a top 10 team in a hostile environment, Spavital is seeking every calm, cool head he can find when the bright lights are shining in Columbia, S.C. Hill showed that as a three-year starter in high school, leading Carroll to one state championship (2011) and earning Class 5A player of the year honors as a senior in 2012.

He reinforced that in reserve duty last season, completing 16 of 22 passes (72.7 percent) for 183 yards and a touchdown in four appearances. Now, he heads to South Carolina with a chance to make the job his own for an extended stretch.

“The way I look at it is, we’re moving forward with Kenny and he’s our guy,” Spavital said. “We’re putting all of our eggs in that basket.”

Only if Hill spills that basket, from all indications, will this competition be re-opened. That may happen. But Hill clearly has shown enough to coaches in closed practice sessions to trump his “oops” moment from spring drills: a March 28 arrest for public intoxication in College Station that Spavital called “an eye opener” for the team’s 19-year-old leader.

After serving a team-mandated suspension, Hill rejoined the team as a changed quarterback, in Spavital’s estimation.

“He made a mistake. And I’m very pleased with how he’s handled it,” Spavital said. “I don’t judge in any way for what he’s done off the field. He’s family to us.”

Now, he’s the successor to Johnny Football. And he will be one of many A&M players preparing to make their first collegiate starts against the Gamecocks. Based on Wednesday’s depth chart, that list includes two freshmen who signed in February: receiver Speedy Noil and free safety Armani Watts.

A total of seven incoming freshmen, including five-star defensive end Myles Garrett from Arlington Martin, are expected to contribute on defense against South Carolina. There are 15 newcomers from the 2014 class (12 freshmen, three JC transfers) listed on the Aggies’ depth chart.

Comparatively speaking, that makes Hill a grizzled veteran. That is how teammates expect Hill to conduct himself in the huddle.

“Going in there with Kenny, you know he’s a veteran,” said receiver Malcome Kennedy, the team’s top returning pass-catcher (60 receptions, 658 yards, seven TDs). “He played some last year and when he did, he delivered. We can ride with Kenny.”

Although Kennedy acknowledged Hill is “still growing up” as a quarterback, he said the sophomore is “on the same page” with receivers in regard to checks and audibles to a greater degree than Allen. He also cited some intangibles that helped the son of former Texas Rangers pitcher Ken Hill emerge as A&M’s new quarterback.

“When he’s in the pocket or waiting for the snap, he’s always poised. He’s always reading the defense,” Kennedy said. “After practice, Kenny is a silly, loose guy. But when he gets in the huddle, he’s serious. I’ve seen him grow up a lot over the past year.”

A huge growth opportunity awaits next week in South Carolina. Offensive guard Joseph Cheek, whose father (Louis) spent four seasons in the NFL, considers Hill ready to thrive in a hostile environment.

“He definitely has an edge to him,” Cheek said. “He’s very confident. That’s part of the role. We’re going to trust in him and he knows that. We’re excited.”

Eventually, Hill will have his say about life as an A&M quarterback. Until that time, he plans to let his starting debut at South Carolina carry the narrative.

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