- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Kenny Hill knows plenty about pressure.
From the time he became a varsity quarterback at Texas high school football power Southlake Carroll to preparing for the unknown as a true freshman at Texas A&M, to engaging in an offseason battle for the right to succeed Johnny Manziel, Hill has met and conquered his fair share of challenges.
Now, his biggest one awaits.
After being officially named the Aggies’ starting quarterback by coach Kevin Sumlin on Saturday, Hill prepares to lead Texas A&M into its post-Johnny Football era on Aug. 28 when the Aggies visit South Carolina.
It’s a moment that Hill has been groomed for.
Hill is no stranger to following a rich legacy. At Southlake, the standards are high -- especially if you’re a quarterback. The program owns eight state championships and is a factory for Division I quarterbacks. Chase Wasson, Chase Daniel, Greg McElroy, Riley Dodge, Kyle Padron and David Piland, who all preceded Hill, went on to play college football.
“Is there pressure? Yes,” said Southlake Carroll coach Hal Wasson, who coached several of the aforementioned players, including Hill. “Every quarterback since '02 has gone D-I.”
But Wasson and those close to Hill never compared him to his assembly line of predecessors. They pressed him to create his own identity -- a concept he embraced.
“Like Kenny would say, he can't be anybody but himself,” said Ken Hill Sr., Kenny’s father. “He's not trying to be somebody he’s not. You have to create your own opportunity and your own legacy.”
Kenny Hill did. In 2011, Hill guided the Dragons to a 16-0 record and a state championship as a junior. Whether by air (3,014 passing yards, 25 touchdowns) or on the ground (1,400 yards, 24 touchdowns), Hill was dominant. As a senior, he accounted for 3,196 offensive yards and 42 touchdowns en route to Gatorade Texas Player of the Year honors.
"He handled that well,” Hill Sr. said. “Like I always tell him, just go out there and do your deal. ... People can talk all they want but your play on the field will speak [for itself]."
Living up to a high standard comes natural to Hill because of his bloodlines. His father, Ken Hill Sr., had a 14-year Major League Baseball career as a pitcher, one that included an All-Star season in 1994.
Kenny Hill continued Carroll’s tradition of Division I quarterbacks by signing with Texas A&M in 2013 and before long, he was thrust into another potential pressure situation. As questions about Manziel’s eligibility loomed amid an NCAA investigation into a pay-for-autographs controversy, Sumlin had Hill, then a true freshman, battle for a chance to start in the event Manziel was suspended.
Manziel wound up serving only a two-quarter suspension, but Hill’s camp performance earned him playing time later, as he appeared in four games as a freshman. That experience proved invaluable entering yet another training camp quarterback race this month with prized recruit Kyle Allen.
Hill’s ability to assimilate the Aggies’ Air Raid-style offense can also be attributed to his prep days; Southlake Carroll ran similar concepts. Texas A&M quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital immediately noticed Hill’s comfort level with the offense.
“You can tell he was raised in a spread, no-huddle system,” Spavital said. “That comes pretty much second nature to him.”
The journey wasn’t without hurdles. Hill missed the final week of spring football practice after an arrest on a public intoxication charge in March.
It was an eye-opener for the 19-year-old. Not only was he suspended from team activities, cell phone photos of Hill passed out in a planter box circulated on social media.
“He was embarrassed,” Hill Sr. said. “Not only did he let his family down, he let the university down, coaches down, teammates. It wasn't a good moment. It was an embarrassing moment. Hopefully he'll continue to learn from it."
Once reinstated for summer workouts, Hill bounced back.
"He's a completely different person now,” said Texas A&M receiver Sabian Holmes, who was also a high school teammate of Hill’s. “You can tell he wants it and he takes everything more serious, not just football but off-the-field decisions and he takes the film [study] more serious.”
If there’s one thing that has carried Hill to this point, it’s his toughness. Whether it's from a mental standpoint (dealing with the daily grind or off-field noise) or a physical standpoint (carrying the ball 382 times in his final two seasons at Southlake Carroll or adding muscle to prepare for the rigors of an SEC schedule), Hill has displayed the necessary fortitude.
“I always admired his toughness,” Hal Wasson said. “I admired the way he commanded a huddle. ... [I remember a game he] didn't play as well as he wanted to, he walked into my office and said ‘Coach, I wasn't at my best, I apologize and it'll never happen again,’ and it didn't. He always took ownership in everything he did.”
When reporting day for Aggies training camp approached this month, Hill was excited and confident. After a year of spot duty and watching Manziel work his magic, his opportunity called and he grabbed it.
Yes, succeeding Johnny Football is a tough task. But Hill was groomed for it.
“With Kenny, his composure, there's really no situation that's too big for him,” Texas A&M sophomore quarterback Conner McQueen said. “Pressure doesn't ever seem to faze Kenny.”
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