So when were you Kenny Trill?
Jarrett Guarantano didn’t mean for the question to come out that way. The redshirt freshman Tennessee quarterback was trying to recall which year Kenny Hill burst into the national consciousness by torching South Carolina in his first career start in the first game broadcast by the SEC Network. After some brief mental math, it was determined that Guarantano was a high school junior in 2014 when we made Hill a Heisman candidate after one good game as a Texas A&M sophomore.
Hill and Guarantano were among five college quarterbacks who spent their spring breaks in San Diego working with coach George Whitfield, and Hill was the most grizzled of the group. Hill, now a fifth-year senior at TCU, shook his head. “Man,” he said. “I’m old.”
Hill is only 22, but it feels as if he’s been in the public eye for a decade. To him, it feels even longer. Ask about the Texas A&M days, and he furrows his brow like a Baby Boomer trying to remember disco. “That feels like forever ago,” he said. “That feels like a whole other lifetime.”
In college football years, it was another lifetime.
As he heads into his final collegiate season, Hill can laugh about the nuclear reaction to that South Carolina game. The boy who struggled to handle all that adulation has grown into a man who understands his football mortality. He wants to play in the NFL, but he has seen how tough it is to get there. This might be Hill’s last season under bright lights, and he hopes to lead the Horned Frogs better than he did as a junior. He knows he may never match the hype thrust upon him following the first game of the post-Johnny Football era at Texas A&M, but at least he knows how to manage it now. In fact, he has some advice he’d love to give to Kenny Trill. “I would tell myself not to worry so much about going to parties and getting out and meeting all these people,” Hill said. “I wouldn’t worry about all that stuff. I’d worry about making sure I did my laundry all the time. I would have no clothes. It’s little stupid stuff that you take for granted, but it’s stuff that I think would have been a lot better for me to be doing at the time.”
Hill now understands the value of a night in while the permanent press cycle spins, but his younger self had to get embarrassed on and off the field to learn that. He still dreads the moment a new acquaintance Googles him. “If you look me up,” he said, “that mugshot is the first picture you see.” The mugshot, which is indeed the first image Google pulls up of Hill, is the second-most-embarrassing photo snapped of Hill early on the morning of March 28, 2014. The most embarrassing one, which remains the second image Google pulls of Hill, shows him passed out in a planter in front of a bar called Chimy’s.
Hill makes no excuses for anything that happened at Texas A&M. He led Dallas-area power Southlake Carroll to a Class 5A state title as a junior in 2011. He arrived in College Station as a freshman in 2013 and immediately became Johnny Manziel’s backup. Hill figured he could play and live like Manziel, who had posted gaudy stats while keeping a full social calendar. “When I was coming out of high school, I was going to A&M to sit behind Johnny for this one year, go in, play two then I'm out to the league after three,” Hill said. His first start as a sophomore only reinforced that notion.
The Gamecocks had reeled off three consecutive 11-win seasons thanks in large part to a suffocating defense. Hill appeared to have the legs and the arm to play like Manziel, so when he completed 44 of 60 passes for 511 yards and three touchdowns in a 52–28 win at Williams-Brice Stadium, the assumption was that the Aggies wouldn’t miss an offensive beat without Manziel. Only later did it become apparent that South Carolina’s defense had fallen off a cliff following the departures of star pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney and several other key role players. Those of us who cover the sport were too busy heaping praise upon Hill to notice. Five days after that first start, Hill found himself surrounded by reporters trying to figure out if they had another Johnny Football on their hands. In fact, Kenny Football was a nickname that had been suggested in the days between the game and that interview session, but no one seemed quite satisfied.
“To me, I wasn’t asking to be called Kenny Trill,” Hill said. “I could watch the interview again and be completely wrong. But if I remember right, they had asked me what nicknames I’d heard. I named them off. They were like, ‘Which one sounds good to you?’ I said ‘I don’t know, Kenny Trill sounds good to me.’ Sure enough, I get an ESPN notification as I’m walking into the office to watch film: ‘Kenny Hill wants to be called Kenny Trill.’” This was the story that popped into Hill’s phone that day, and it backs up his recollection. However the name came to be, the man who coined the term “trill”—a combination of “true and real” was prophetic after learning the news.
At the time, Texas A&M was reaching the end of a unique moment. The euphoria of the school’s move to the SEC and Manziel’s Heisman had carried through 2013. Instagram and Snapchat had gone mainstream among college students, and every moment of this special time had to be documented. Aggies in public got treated like the Beatles at the beginning of Hard Day’s Night. Hill remembers a first date at Torchy’s Tacos with a woman who didn’t particularly care that he played quarterback. She might have been the only person in the restaurant who didn’t. Suddenly, students crowded around seeking pictures. Other women asked Hill’s date to take their pictures with him. As they got into the car to leave, Hill remembers a group of women running to the window snapping photos with their phones. Hill got the same treatment when he was alone. “I would be at Chick-fil-A and check Twitter and people would be in my notifications saying ‘Kenny Hill is at Chick-fil-A,’ ” he said.
Hill knows he didn’t handle the fame well. After the Aggies started 5–0, they lost three in a row. He was suspended for two games in November 2014 for violating team rules, but Aggies coaches insisted fellow freshman Kyle Allen would have started over Hill had Hill been available. Shortly after the season, when it was apparent Allen would enter 2015 as the starter, Hill consulted with his parents and decided to transfer.
Ken and Lorrie Hill knew their son needed a change. Ken knew all about dealing with fame after 14 seasons as a Major League pitcher, but fame in the social media era was a completely different animal. When the Hills filed for a trademark on Kenny Trill because they were advised that people would try to make money off their son’s name if they didn’t, they got criticized for buying into the hype. But that wasn’t the case. They were trying to protect their oldest child, and that continued even after he’d made his share of mistakes in College Station. “Looking back on it, I can't even explain how grateful I am for them,” Kenny Hill said. “I know they wanted to get on my ass. I know they just wanted to ream me out. But they wanted to get me through it without completely crushing me. They balanced it really well.”
So Kenny transferred closer to home, spending his first semester after Texas A&M not at TCU but at Tarrant Community College. That was the idea of Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson, who wanted Hill to have some time away from football to focus on his academics. Hill enrolled at TCU later in 2015, but he had to sit out the season because of NCAA transfer rules. “It started off really good, but then we got to football season and that sucked,” he said. Hill realized how much he missed leading the offense. Playing scout team for the first time in his life, he felt useless. He worried if his new teammates would accept him. “I thought they were going to picture me as some a------, Kenny Trill, that they’d seen on the news,” he said. But the Horned Frogs didn’t feel that way. Tailback Aaron Green had transferred from Nebraska in 2012, and he helped Hill adjust. So did quarterback Trevone Boykin, who had gone through an up-and-down start to his career before emerging as a star in 2014.
Hill maintained a low profile that first year in Fort Worth. No one bothered him when he went out for tacos. But he wanted an offense to rely on him again. He got his chance last year when he won the starting job in preseason camp. Hill put up decent numbers early, but by the end of the season the Horned Frogs could barely move the ball through the air. In TCU’s last four games—three of them losses—Hill completed only 48.9% of his passes and averaged only 5.3 yards per attempt. “Last year was hard,” Hill said. “It was not anything like I expected. I didn’t expect to come in and dominate, but I expected to be better than what I was and lead us better than I did.”
Patterson believes Hill needs to be more efficient, but the Horned Frogs also need to allow Hill to run more. If defenses load the box out of respect for Hill’s legs, it should open up more opportunities in the passing game. “In Kenny’s case, he has to manage the game,” Patterson said. “We have to use his feet. We have to put him in situations with things that are better for him.”
If Hill lights up Jackson State or Arkansas or SMU in the season’s first few weeks, don’t expect him to show up on any Heisman Trophy watch lists. Given his history, Hill will have to cut a path through the Big 12 to earn any hype. That’s fine with him. If he gets attention now, it’ll be for leading his team to wins.
Kenny Trill is dead. In his place is a guy who remembers to do his laundry. But if that’s the true and real Kenny Hill, it may be enough.
A random ranking
I’m not going to reveal any spoilers, but the day after the premiere of Season 7 of Game of Thrones, it’s only fitting that we power rank the great—and not-so-great—houses.
Three and Out
1. SI legal analyst Michael McCann wrote a fascinating breakdown of former Ohio State linebacker Chris Spielman’s lawsuit against the school for using the images of Spielman and other former Buckeyes on banners paid for by Honda and for licensing the jerseys of Buckeyes legends produced by Nike without receiving permission from or providing payment to the former players. This suit could be interesting in a variety of ways, but because Ohio State isn’t necessarily defending a system the way the NCAA was in Ed O’Bannon’s case, it’s possible the school simply settles the case and pays Spielman and the other former players. Still, that wouldn’t help the argument from the NCAA and the schools that there is no market for players’ likenesses. (There clearly is.) Spielman has said he’ll donate any money he receives back to Ohio State’s athletic department; he merely wants to raise awareness and help other former players. He’s put the Buckeyes in a no-win situation, so it will be interesting to see how Ohio State responds.
2. Alabama added a lot of jet motion concepts to its offense after losing to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl following the 2014 season. (For those who don’t know, jet motion is a receiver moving parallel to the line of scrimmage and arriving near the quarterback at the snap.) That addition has made the Crimson Tide even more effective in the running game. In this clip from a coaching clinic, Alabama offensive line coach Brent Key explains why it works so well.
3. Oregon has dismissed receiver Darren Carrington following his arrest on a DUI charge last week. Carrington previously had been suspended for the national title game following the 2014 season and part of the ’15 season after testing positive during an NCAA-administered drug test. Carrington was Oregon’s most productive returning receiver. Now, it’ll be up to senior Charles Nelson and a young group to provide targets for quarterback Justin Herbert.
What’s Eating Andy?
How do we know Mike Gundy is confident going into this season? He has no Samson superstitions. His power comes from a loaded roster, not an epic mullet.
What’s Andy Eating?
Want to read more restaurant reviews? Check out SI Eats, SI’s new home for the intersection of sports and food.
The smoked wing is better in so many ways than the Buffalo wing, but given the choice, most restaurateurs opt for Smokey's flash-fried, sauce-tossed cousin.
Why? While wings don’t take hours to smoke like a pork shoulder or a brisket, they do take time. But they fry up in minutes, and at the worst establishments they can go from freezer to plate in about the time it takes to pour the beer that will make diners too drunk to care how their wings taste. Plus, it’s tough to make fried chicken to taste bad—making Buffalo wings something even the most incompetent, stoned kitchen staff can’t botch. It’s far easier to fry wings, which is why the smoked wing usually gets reduced to an appetizer at barbecue joints.
Fortunately, there is a place in Nashville, Tenn., where the proprietors believe smoked wings should be the main attraction—even if the name suggests otherwise. Smokin’ Thighs makes for a great sign and a catchy T-shirt, but you’re not coming for the pulled, smoked thigh meat served on a plate with two sides. You’re coming for the smoked wings, possibly served from the bed of a giant toy dump truck.
Forget all the other stuff on the menu. It says an accident created the bacon mac and cheese, but the only accident is ordering it. It’s too soupy, and it’s a waste of stomach space that could be filled by more delicious smoked wings. Get them rubbed Nashville Hot style. Get them tossed in Buffalo sauce. Get them covered in bacon, mushrooms and jalapenos and served in that big yellow dump truck. They’re big. They’re juicy. They’re smoky. They don’t pack as many calories as their fried brethren, so load up.
Smokin’ Thighs has lined the walls with TVs and curated an excellent beer selection, making it Nirvana for anyone seeking a place to watch an out-of-town game. You don’t have to settle for fried chain wings and boring beer. If the rest of us are lucky, the brains behind Smokin’ Thighs—or someone else who understands the smoked wing is the superior wing—will take this idea nationwide. If not, we’ll have to eat them by truckload every time we visit Nashville.