Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer 98d

TCU's Kenny Hill eager to make most of final opportunity

In mid-July, six weeks before TCU's season started, Kenny Hill sat on a dais inside the Ford Center in Frisco, Texas, the headquarters of the Dallas Cowboys, during Big 12 media days and thoughtfully answered questions from reporters.

In the midst of one confident, elaborate answer -- someone asked if the Horned Frogs had the offensive personnel to avoid prolonged stretches of futility -- Hill paused and slowly blinked. It seemed he was envisioning missed opportunities, moments of the 2016 season flashing through his memory bank at that very moment.

Hill then smiled and said, "I'm just ready to get it going. I'm ready to stop talking about it and actually do it."

This season, Hill's final collegiate campaign, is one he has long waited for. It's already underway -- Hill and the Horned Frogs dominated FCS foe Jackson State 63-0 in Week 1 -- but the first true test of 2017 comes on Saturday afternoon, when No. 23 TCU travels to Arkansas.

It's Hill's final chance to "change the narrative" on him -- his words to local reporters a week ago -- and fulfill the potential he flashed several times over the years, including his collegiate debut with Texas A&M in 2014, when he smashed Johnny Manziel's record by throwing for 511 yards in a blowout win over South Carolina, a performance that earned him the nickname "Kenny Trill."

While we must wait and see his on-field performance, Hill's growth off the gridiron is clear. At 22, he's more mature and much more self-aware. The lessons he learned at Texas A&M are benefiting him to this day.

Looking back on those days, Hill said it feels like "a whole other lifetime."

"I wasn't ready for it [success] yet," Hill said. "I wasn't mature enough yet. I thought I was; I wasn't. I've grown up now and I see ..." Hill pauses, laughs and says with a smile, "Man, I was dumb back then. I was young and dumb, man."

Off the field, that's no longer the case. Hill said he's learned the benefits of staying home ("there's always another party") and that he doesn't have to win respect from teammates by going out with them ("you win your teammates over in the weight room, on the field"). While teammates might joke around once in a while by invoking the "Trill" moniker, there are no more nicknames either.

"I'm just Kenny Hill Jr.," he said. "That's it, same name as my dad."

Spending the past two seasons in Fort Worth -- one sitting out for NCAA transfer rules and last year as the starter -- has helped foster that growth. What's left for Hill to make the breakthrough is to achieve the on-field consistency that has escaped him to this point. Coach Gary Patterson said the coaches and players can assist him in that regard.

"We've got to give him help," Patterson said in July. "We've got to catch the ball better. I think we're going to be better up front offensive line-wise. We only lost one wide receiver. So I think all those things benefit him, and then we've got to put him in an offense too that bends toward his strengths."

Patterson's right. The Horned Frogs had 38 drops last season, the most in the nation, according to Pro Football Focus. Three teams tied for the most sacks allowed in the Big 12 with 32; TCU allowed 31.

The first chance to truly prove that those issues won't be repeated comes on Saturday in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Last season, the Razorbacks went to Fort Worth and pulled out a 41-38 double-overtime thriller, a game that was a microcosm both of Hill's and the Horned Frogs' 2016 season: some bright moments that provided optimism spliced together with stretches of futility that left purple-clad players, coaches and fans frustrated. The result was a 6-7 campaign, only the third sub-.500 mark in Patterson's 17 years at TCU.

"This isn't a program that loses like that," Hill said. "That's not anything that should happen. It's not acceptable, any of that."

If the Horned Frogs are to bounce back in a big way this season, which they have done before -- the past two times they finished under .500, they won double-digit games the following season -- Hill's performance will play a big role. In 2016, there were times when he looked brilliant and others, not so much. He threw for a respectable 3,208 yards, but also led the Big 12 in interceptions with 13.

"I've just got to play better, bottom line," he said. "I've got to play better."

Hill spent this offseason working not just on throwing the football, but on his footwork, too. Patterson said he realized he has to help Hill "with his swagger" and not be so hard on him at times.

Hill said he wouldn't change much about the ups and downs he has endured over time, but he's valuing his final opportunity.

"This is it for me, man," he said. "This is the last ride. You know, I just feel like if I can go out this year and have a big year and this team does great things, everything I've been through ... is worth it."

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