Kenny Hill impressive in opener, but Arkansas test awaits

Kenny Hill throws a pass against Jackson State

The first step in TCU quarterback Kenny Hill’s Reputation Redemption Tour unfolded in impressive fashion Saturday night in Amon G. Carter Stadium. But it would be wise to hold off on the unbridled optimism in the wake of a 63-0 rout of Jackson State until more evidence surfaces, starting with this week’s contest at Arkansas.

Hill, a fifth-year senior from Southlake Carroll, threw more interceptions than any starting quarterback in the Big 12 during last year’s 6-7 season. But he showed a comfort level with the Horned Frogs’ offense against Jackson State that was missing last season, Hill’s first in charge of the TCU offense. Hill was crisp and decisive, with rare exception, while throwing for 206 yards and four touchdowns in the debut of Sonny Cumbie as TCU’s new offensive play-caller.

Hill completed the first eight passes he attempted against JSU, including two for touchdowns, and completed 82.7 percent of his throws (18-of-23). His lone interception came on a deep ball that hung in the air a bit too long rather than an ill-advised throw into coverage. He even threw the clearing block that allowed freshman Kennedy Snell to reach the end zone after a cutback move to cap a 13-yard scoring strike on the Frogs’ opening drive.

Some of the success, no doubt, had to do with facing an opponent that now is 0-14 in school history against major-college football programs like TCU. But there’s no question that Hill, 22, made some positive strides in what he described as a season-long effort “to come out and change the narrative about me” after a mostly inconsistent college career that began at Texas A&M and will conclude at TCU.

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Asked if he made the statement he sought in Saturday’s opener, Hill said: “Absolutely. I felt great out there. I feel comfortable in the offense and I’ve been waiting a long time for this. Other than the pick, when I put too much air under the ball, everything seemed like it flowed well.

“I didn’t play the way I wanted to last year. I think I’ve grown up. I’ve been through a lot, seen a lot, experienced a lot. I’ve learned what it takes to play this position in college.”

More defining tests are on the horizon, starting with this week’s contest at Arkansas, a longtime rival from TCU’s days in the Southwest Conference. But Coach Gary Patterson acknowledged he thought Hill made strides as a decision-maker Saturday compared to what he showed last season.

“Yeah, I did,” Patterson said. “I didn’t like the interception. I told Kenny about that one. Other than that, I was happy.”

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Without question, Hill headed into the season as the X-factor in TCU’s hopes to return to contender status in the Big 12, as well as a weekly spot in the Top 25 rankings. He was pushed throughout the off-season by freshman Shawn Robinson, a four-star signee from DeSoto who showed promise as a backup by throwing a 56-yard scoring strike to TreVontae Hights on his first collegiate completion Saturday.

Hill credited Robinson’s presence as the backup with motivating him to put more separation between his totals for touchdown passes (17) and interceptions (13) than he did a year ago. Saturday’s touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio of 4-1 marked a step in the right direction. It followed an edict from Cumbie, who has been Hill’s quarterbacks coach throughout his time at TCU and challenged his senior leader during fall drills.

“As a quarterback, at times, you allow things to build up and your frustrations grow. I think you saw some of that with him,” Cumbie said before a recent practice. “What he needs to do better is protect the football, make better decisions and be consistently accurate. Those are the key things we’re asking him to do. He knows it’s time for him to grow up and play at a high level.”

For one night, Hill did exactly that. He led TCU on five touchdown drives in eight possessions, building a 42-0 lead before turning matters over to Robinson with 6:34 remaining in the third quarter. The TCU offense, which struggled with penalties last season, was not flagged during any of Hill’s possessions and the lone interception did not set up a short-field scoring opportunity for Jackson State.

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Future games will offer more significant stressers and Robinson showed he’ll keep the pressure on Hill to produce with a solid college debut: 5-of-7 through the air for 94 yards, with two touchdowns. He also averaged 14.3 yards on three carries, including a 40-yarder that was TCU’s longest rushing gain of the night.

Patterson praised Robinson and said his first taste of success in college “will help him make big strides for next week” as TCU prepares for Arkansas. Hill knows the next game will be a test of whether he can show more consistency in his weekly efforts.

“The competition will step up next week and we know that. We’re just ready to get back to work,” Hill said. “We came in looking to be 1-0 and we are. I’m a results guy. I’m just looking for wins. I’m trying to go 12-0, then 13. And, hopefully, 14 and 15.”

The first step came Saturday against Jackson State, with two of Hill’s scoring strikes going to Desmon White. Asked what struck him most about Hill in the season opener, White had a quick response.

“Confidence,” White said. “He knows what he’s doing and what it’s going to take to get to the next level. We all believe in him and we’re ready to go.”