The NCAA is long gone. The win-loss record is back to 0-0. And University of Miami football coach Al Golden can finally say these are his players.
The 2014 Hurricanes have been, in a sense, reborn — or, as their recent marketing campaign suggests, “renewed.”
Yet, what awaits the Hurricanes at 8 p.m. Monday is the same program that ended their 2013 season in an ugly way.
Just eight months and a few days after the Cardinals embarrassed Miami 36-9 at the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando, the two programs open the new season together at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
For Louisville (12-1 and ranked 13th in the final 2013 AP and USA Today coaches’ polls), Monday’s game marks its debut in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
For Miami (9-4 and unranked last season), it marks the debut of a true freshman quarterback who Hurricanes fans hope will lead them to their first ACC championship — and beyond.
“I think we’re going to be an awesome team,” 18-year-old quarterback Brad Kaaya said on media day Aug. 15 — the only day, per customary rules for freshmen, he has been allowed to speak to reporters since arriving in late May from his home in Southern California. “We have weapons on both sides of the ball.”
High school All-American Kaaya led West Hills Chaminade to a state championship last season with 3,855 passing yards and 27 touchdowns.
The Hurricanes have been blasting music and crowd noise constantly in practice to help prepare the teenager for a taste of what he will get under the lights Monday night, when most of the capacity crowd of 55,000 will be garbed in all black for a UL-organized “blackout.”
The Hurricanes believe that Kaaya, known for being intensely focused, will prevail.
“He definitely doesn’t act like a freshman,” senior defensive end Anthony Chickillo said. “He’s very mature. We tried to get after him, tried to get in his head, and he didn’t really let us in.”
Said receiver Herb Waters: “As Coach Golden would say, ‘He’s not a freshman, he’s the quarterback at the University of Miami.’ We have his back 100 percent.
“The only thing that counts right now is surrounding him and supporting him and keeping the motor moving.”
Be assured that UM tailback Duke Johnson, back for the first time since breaking his ankle Nov. 2 at Florida State, will attempt to take some pressure off Kaaya with his already proven talent and breakaway speed. Johnson needs 133 rushing yards to become the ninth 2,000-yard rusher in program history.
“I don’t believe I have to carry the offense the whole season,” Johnson said. “A game here or a game there the offense will depend on me, and I’ll be ready.:
Golden said he’s confident Kaaya will be fine because of the veterans that surround him — Johnson, some top-notch receivers, a veteran tight end in Clive Walford and a solid offensive line.
It’s the defense that has disappointed in recent years. Except for star middle linebacker Denzel Perryman, the linebacker corps appears vulnerable, and the defensive line has been a weakness. With another year of experience, coaches believe this defense will finally impress.
“We can talk about it all we want,” Golden said, “At the end of the day, it’s [about] going out there and proving it, and what better opportunity than going against a prolific offense like Louisville’s.”
Louisville’s offense, however, will be without one of the great quarterbacks in college football — Miami native Teddy Bridgewater, now in the NFL. Taking his place is 6-5, 226-pound third-year sophomore Will Gardner, who completed 8 of 12 passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns last season.
Bridgewater torched the Hurricanes in the bowl game with a career-high 447 yards.
Louisville also will be without injured wide receiver DeVante Parker, who caught 55 passes for 855 yards and tied a school record with 12 touchdowns last season. Backup tailback Michael Dyer, who recently sustained a thigh contusion, is listed as questionable.
The Cardinals have brought back coach Bobby Petrino, known as one of the great offensive minds in football. Louisville was 22-1 at home under Petrino when he first coached UL from 2003 to 2006.
“I’ve always enjoyed opening with a game that had a lot at stake,” Petrino said. “This is a great opener for us, to be able to play on a Monday night [on] national TV.”
The last time the Hurricanes played at Louisville, in September 2006 during Larry Coker’s last season as UM coach, the Hurricanes ran to midfield before the game and stomped on the painted Cardinals logo. Coaches and officials got between both teams to prevent a fight, and the Cards went on to win 31-7.
It’s doubtful this Hurricanes team will provide any similar pregame antics.
With the NCAA investigation over and life a little less stressful in Coral Gables these days, Golden wants his Hurricanes to focus only on the moment at hand.
“We all say we want to bring it back,” Golden said earlier this summer of UM’s past dominance. “But we want to do it with our own identity.
“It’s a good team, so it’s a great test for us right off the bat. But it’s more important we control our variables than worry about theirs.”