COLUMBIA, S.C.-- On Thursday night, Kenny Hill, the Texas A&M quarterback whom a lot of people assumed wouldn't be the starting quarterback, put on the kind of performance that a lot of people also assumed wouldn't be seen much from the Aggies this season.
After all, Johnny Manziel is in the past, right? And Kyle Allen is the future, right? The answers to those questions are "yes" and "more than likely," but for now, Hill is the present. With all due respect to the Heisman Trophy-winning, finger-rubbing Cleveland Browns backup, the present is actually a much more natural fit for coach Kevin Sumlin's spread offense.
There are plenty of Sumlin fans in the league, from those who do the scouting to those who do the hiring. He was reportedly offered the Philadelphia Eagles job before Chip Kelly, so this past winter Texas A&M jacked up his buyout clause to stave off NFL offers. That clause expires in 2016. I know this because at least a half-dozen NFL people have told me.
Those same people admitted to me they were excited to see what kind of crazy numbers a Sumlin-designed offense could produce once, in the words of one scout, "he finally had a quarterback in there that was recruited to fit his system. This kid [Hill] will take the plays he's been given and run them. Manziel is great, but it was very obvious that he was playing off book. A lot. The right kid behind center was always going to be a better showcase for what Sumlin can really do as a coach."
Those words were spoken to me prior to kickoff. When the clock hit zeros at the end of the first half, A&M had silenced Williams-Brice Stadium with a 31-14 lead, and Hill's stat line read 27-of-35 for 299 yards, with two TDs and zero picks. When I looked down the press box bench at the scout who'd said that to me, he simply stood up, winked, clapped his hands and walked away. By game's end, Hill had thrown for 511 yards, another TD pass and even thrown in an old-school, goal-line option pitch for another six points.
Yes, A&M's offensive line gave Hill all the time in the world. Yes, his receivers were sharp after the catch. And, yes, South Carolina's post- Jadeveon Clowney defense was unexpectedly horrible. But it was the easiness of Hill's execution that impressed, as was the play calling that paved the way for that ease.
No one is ready to declare Hill the next Tom Brady. Hill isn't just a talent, he's a reminder that Sumlin is yet to have a quarterbackwho did not put up outstanding numbers. Whether Hill is an NFL talent or a Sumlin creation is what we'll find out, and it might not be until some NFL team drafts Hill.The scouts aren't ready to speculate on the sophomore's pro prospects at all. But as the team embarks on its upcoming non-SEC stretch against Lamar, Rice and SMU, there might not be a statistical ceiling too high for Hill to hit.
As another scout explained, "This was a perfect storm kind of deal tonight in that he had a lot of time to pick his spots, and the lanes in the secondary were huge. But he still had to drop it in there. I didn't seem him make but one or two questionable decisions. Good quarterbacks take little openings and make them look huge with accuracy. He did that. That builds confidence. Now he has a month against second-tier competition to keep building that confidence."
By the end of the third quarter, the small handful of scouts who'd actually stuck around were bringing up another name from Sumlin's past, and it wasn't Manziel.
"Looks an awful lot like Case Keenum, doesn't it?"
For those of you who have forgotten, Keenum (now with the Houston Texans) was Sumlin's quarterback at Houston. In 2011, their last season together, Keenum was otherworldly, throwing for 5,631 yards and 48 touchdowns against only five interceptions. He completed passes at a 71 percent clip and posted a QB rating of 174.0.
When Keenum's name was mentioned to Sumlin after Thursday night's game, he was quick to say he doesn't like comparing players, but the whole time, he was smiling and nodding.
Like Keenum, Hill came from a big Texas high school and won a state championship but wasn't a nationally clamored-over prospect. Keenum was a two-star prospect. Hill was a three-star, so being in the shadow of all the preseason chatter about Allen, a freshman, didn't bother him. And because of his experience at Southlake Carroll High, the idea of being on big stages, like Williams-Brice, hasn't rattled him, either.
Now, as the scouts clearly knew prior to the South Carolina game -- and as the rest of world certainly knew by the time that game was over -- he also isn't above being coached. And why not? Clearly, that coach knows what he's doing.
"Sumlin has always been overshadowed," the last scout standing said as he packed up his bag after the drubbing of the Gamecocks. "At Houston they wanted to give all the credit to Kliff [Kingsbury, then the offensive coordinator and now the Texas Tech coach]. The last couple of years they wanted to give Johnny Manziel all the credit. At some point, people out there in the world are going to realize that he's a damn good quarterbacks coach."
Thursday night was a pretty nice start.