CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) — Brad Kaaya gets recognized almost everywhere he goes now. Fans asked him to pose for pictures with them at a recent Justin Bieber concert. He’s gotten used to shooing away people who see him in restaurants and try to pick up his check. He even got noticed at a baseball game earlier this year.
A game in Toronto, that is.
Even when he’s far from home, all eyes seem to be on Miami’s quarterback. The Hurricanes have new coach in Mark Richt and are a decade removed from their last bowl win, but possess a bona fide star in Kaaya — a junior widely expected to turn pro after this season and who has Miami’s now-annual hopes for a resurgence resting squarely on his shoulders.
“We’ve gone through some things and we’ve been in big games,” Kaaya said. “We’ve had all kinds of ups and downs. We’ve got guys who have played in Blacksburg, played at Tallahassee, played at Nebraska, guys who’ve seen a lot. And from practice one this spring, even with a new offense, we clicked right away. I don’t want to get too ahead of myself, but that right there has me pretty excited.”
If Kaaya’s excited, that’s a good thing for the starving Hurricane fan base.
He’s had a California coolness to him — makes sense, since he’s from the Los Angeles area — from basically the moment he arrived on campus two years ago and was quickly installed as the starting quarterback as a true freshman. He’s seen the program deal with NCAA sanctions, the firing of coach Al Golden last fall after a 58-0 loss to Clemson and plenty of other disappointments.
But he’s rarely rattled, and already has won Richt’s confidence — even before Miami starts training camp in early August.
“He’s human. Not perfect,” Richt said. “But we’ve got a lot to work with. He’s very smart, very accurate, he’s got good size, got great field vision and awareness. I haven’t coached him in the middle of a ballgame, don’t know how he reacts to adversity. But I think there’s a mental and physical toughness that he has that’s crucial to have if you’re going to have success at that position.”
The Hurricanes haven’t had as much success as they want, but that’s hardly Kaaya’s fault.
Miami is scheduled to open this season against Florida A&M on Sept. 3 — Kaaya’s 21st birthday — and at his current pace he could eclipse the school’s all-time passing yardage record by season’s end. Kaaya has averaged 3,218 yards in each of his first two years with the Hurricanes; he’s 3,130 yards away from breaking the record that Ken Dorsey set from 1999 through 2002.
He’s eight touchdown throws away from being the third Hurricane to pass for 50 scores in a career as well. It’s numbers like those — and many others — why he’s mentioned among the elite players in the Atlantic Coast Conference by the coach of Miami’s biggest rival, even while the Hurricanes have gone a mere 13-12 in Kaaya’s 25 career starts.
“Name me a league that has bigger stars than (Florida State running back) Dalvin Cook, (Clemson quarterback) Deshaun Watson and Brad Kaaya,” said Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, who went on to rave about Kaaya’s throwing ability and in the past has even mentioned him as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate.
Given all that, it’s easy to see why Kaaya could be a 2017 draft possibility.
He knows very well that quarterbacks went No. 1 and No. 2 overall in this year’s draft, with Jared Goff and Carson Wentz in those spots. They signed deals that will be worth a combined $54.6 million over the next four years.
Yet when the big question comes these days, Kaaya sidesteps it with ease.
“It’s not really right to speculate,” Kaaya said. “It’s not fair to me. I’ve worked too hard to get ahead of myself. Dating back to when I was a freshman in high school and I had zero offers, that’s what I think about. I think about the next day. That’s it. My biggest worry right now is getting through conditioning in the morning, the 6 a.m. workouts we’re doing.”
Just as he did in 2014 and 2015, he thinks Miami can turn this season into something special. And maybe more than ever, it’ll be on him to carry the Hurricanes to the heights they’re desperate to reach.
“There’s a lot of work to do,” Kaaya said. “But I think we’re on the right track.”
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