- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- When fall classes began Monday at Texas A&M, Kenny Hill found himself in an unexpected position.
He had been a firsthand witness as his predecessor, Johnny Manziel, became the center of attention in College Station and throughout college football. Hill remembers walking around with Manziel as people flocked toward him requesting pictures, autographs, a piece of his time.
"I was just walking with Johnny [last year] and he got that," Hill said Tuesday. "I thought, 'That won't happen to me.'"
The 19-year-old Aggies quarterback is the new big man on campus in Aggieland following his historic starting debut, a record-breaking 511-yard performance in the Aggies' 52-28 season-opening win over South Carolina.
Now Hill is the one Aggies want to talk to, want a picture with and are bestowing nicknames upon. ("Kenny Trill" is the one that has been currently settled on.)
"It's been nuts walking around with everyone looking at me and all that stuff," Hill said. "It's been crazy. It's kind of fun. I'm just trying to live my life like I always had."
While Hill manages his sudden surge in popularity, the Aggies are managing expectations after their eye-opening debut. A team that much of the college football world assumed would take a step back post-Manziel (and Mike Evans and Jake Matthews) suddenly looks like a team to be reckoned with in the SEC West.
How good the Aggies can be will be determined by several factors, including a defense that showed signs of improvement from last year but still has plenty of work to do after allowing 366 passing yards and seven yards per play to the Gamecocks.
But make no mistake, the Aggies are about scoring points, and Hill will be the linchpin to that objective. After a 44-for-60 passing performance that included three touchdowns and zero interceptions, the bar is set high. Can he replicate it?
"I can shoot for it," Hill said. "I'm just going to do as much as it takes to help our team win, whether it's 511 yards or 11 yards, that's what I'm going to do."
Hill wasn't perfect, but he was awfully close. Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said that of the 99 plays the Aggies ran, he graded Hill negatively on 12 of them while reviewing game tape.
Spavital is comfortable with Hill running everything in the offense, and it will continue to evolve as Hill improves. As a natural fit for the Air Raid-inspired attack, Spavital is now interested in how Hill reacts when things go wrong.
"I'm curious to see how Kenny handles adversity, because there's going to be times like that," Spavital said. "It could be this week vs. Lamar. If we go three-and-out or he throws an interception, that's naturally going to happen in a game. I just want to see how he can overcome that and how he handles that situation."
Hill's teammates weren't surprised. They became accustomed to his poise and demeanor.
"Extremely high football IQ, always asking good questions, asking if there's a better way to do things," third-string quarterback Conner McQueen said of Hill. "Coach Spav does a good job of giving us options going into the game, and I really think Kenny used that to his advantage and not checking to the same thing, exploring the offense and doing things that really outdates the time that he's been here in two years."
While he continues to evolve as a player, dealing with the spotlight that accompanies his play might be as important as his on-field play. Hill is already showing maturity in that regard.
When asked if he stops to pose for pictures with students on campus, he told reporters, "Coach [Kevin] Sumlin won't let me take pictures. ... Johnny got himself in so much trouble with pictures. He doesn't want me to get in trouble with pictures."
Sumlin was somewhat surprised to learn that, because he claims he didn't tell Hill that. What he did say is if Hill wants to say no, blame Sumlin, a service Sumlin offers to all his players if they feel the need.
Hill has seen the negative side of the spotlight. This spring, when he was arrested on a public intoxication charge, the incident made national headlines and he received immense criticism. He said he deserved the criticism and that it was embarrassing.
"I can't take any day for granted," Hill said. "I have to come out every day and work hard. I can't take days off, plays off, or for that instance, a night off. I have to be smart, always."
There was evidence of that Tuesday. After a media swarm that saw reporters peppering him with nearly 50 questions in a roughly 15-minute span (all of which he handled as smoothly as he did South Carolina's defense), Hill retreated afterward to the third-floor coaches' offices in the Bright Football Complex to watch more video on Lamar, the Aggies' next opponent. As the world around him changes rapidly -- he wasn't even named the starting quarterback until Aug. 16 -- Hill is trying to carry the same demeanor he always has.
"It's unreal how fast it happened," Hill said. "I honestly did not expect it to happen like that. Like I said, it's something I've got to deal with. I can't think about it too much. I just have to keep working every day."
5dSam Khan Jr.
13dSam Khan Jr.