Greg Cote: Miami Hurricanes’ next great QB needs to rise to elite

08/28/2014 2:00 PM

09/08/2014 8:16 PM

They called this “Quarterback U” for a while, but not for a long while. If you said that of the Miami Hurricanes football program now, or any time during the past 10 years, it might come across as unkind mockery, like calling an obese man “Tiny.”

The Canes plowed deep into August still unsure who their starting quarterback would be as the 2014 season neared before choosing freshman Brad Kaaya, but really the question was how much that mattered. It wasn’t so much who would get the ball first as how good either would be throwing it.

Ryan Williams was supposed to be the man before right knee surgery sidelined him indefinitely, but fifth-year seniors who are career reserves before finally getting their chance to start tends to speak of patience more than talent.

The choice then was down to two opposite options: A 23-year-old married transfer student on his third college, Jake Heaps, or an 18-year-old true freshman of promising but unknowable future in Kaaya — both of them still learning the playbook.

The two other scholarship quarterbacks in the UM stable are redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen, who is suspended from the season opener after a failed drug test, and Malik Rosier, a two-sport true freshman still trying to decide if he might prefer baseball.

“I’m very pleased with that position group,” coach Al Golden said the other day, when Heaps and Kaaya still were running 1 and 1A on the depth chart.

Added offensive coordinator James Coley: “I really, truly believe we’ve done a great job recruiting that position.”

But will anyone stand out as special from among that eclectic fivesome?

Skepticism might be unfair, but recent history invites it.

The search for the Next Great Quarterback has become the Canes’ Holy Grail.

Everybody talks up Kaaya and his future, so his selection as starter was no big surprise. Coley says, “He’s just a different type of freshman. He comes across like he’s a junior. Like he’s done this before.”

But can he be extraordinary? Dynamic and exciting and Heisman Watch-great? Can he be what Tim Tebow was for the Gators or what Jameis Winston is for FSU?

Miami’s biggest star entering its 89th season of football and Golden’s fourth is a running back. This is Duke Johnson’s team, a designation well earned, but also one gained partly by default because of the questions and doubts at quarterback.

The team’s biggest question entering the season is how much improvement we will see in a defense gouged for 131 points in three consecutive losses last year, a defense that has coordinator Mark D’Onofrio in fans’ crosshairs. But that onus on the defense is as great as it is partly because there is no QB here who has proved he can outscore not only the opponent but his own team’s (lack of) defense.

You don’t rely as much on a Duke Johnson or worry as much about your defense if Johnny Manziel or Winston are taking your snaps, capiche?

Does it strike you as unfair that I would contrast UM’s quarterback situation with college football’s most electrifying players immediately past and present?

Why?

That was sort of the standard here way back when Fran Curci and then George Mira gave the school excellent play at the premier position, and more recently when “Quarterback U” was a moniker you could defend as legit as UM was producing Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks in 1986 (Vinny Testaverde) and 1992 (Gino Torretta). There was a nearly uninterrupted stretch here from 1980 to 1992 when the Canes QBs were Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Testaverde, Steve Walsh, Craig Erickson and Toretta.

After a lull at the position there was a resurgence with Ken Dorsey, who in his 2000-02 term directed UM’s most recent of five national championships and also became the last Canes QB recognized as an All-American.

(Dorsey might also have won a Heisman but wasn’t even the best player in his own backfield that ’01 championship season. Star running back Willis McGahee was. Nonetheless, Dorsey left with school records that still stand for career passing yards, touchdowns and victories. He is The U’s last special quarterback.)

The program’s downturn since has been mirrored by the downturn at quarterback since.

UM has had at least four losses a year for eight consecutive seasons, including last year’s 9-4 after a 7-0 start. Since Dorsey, the starting quarterbacks have been Brock Berlin, Kyle Wright, Robert Marve, Jacory Harris and Stephen Morris.

To be fair, the Miami-grown Harris threw 70 TD passes for UM and had a prolific college career, but he also threw more interceptions than any Cane ever. And Morris had 49 TDs and a solid term here, but he too fell short of rekindling talk of “Quarterback U” or lifting the program back to national prominence.

Harris and Morris were neither failures nor stars.

The Hurricanes need another star back there. It has been awhile.

Miami has not had a quarterback drafted into the NFL even as high as the fifth round since Erickson in 1991. Since then Florida State, Florida and UCF each have had two quarterbacks taken in the first round, and the Noles’ Winston, reigning Heisman winner, will join the list.

Spread-option offenses like many colleges run (Auburn comes to mind) can get by with an athlete taking snaps, not necessarily a gifted passer. But in a pro-style offense such as Miami runs, “the threat is the throw,” admits Coley.

A recent coaches-on-the-hot-seat feature on ESPN.com listed Golden in a “preheating” category, a sort of watch list for pending peril, I suppose. I don’t buy it. Don’t see his job in any jeopardy or even close. But if the goal is competing for national championships again, that gets back to the guy taking the snaps, and to UM’s long, elusive search for the Next Great Quarterback.

Nothing keeps a coach’s job safer better than one of those.

Miami needs one of its young guns — or someone not yet recruited — to finally be that answer.

The football, and the chance, belong to Kaaya.

About Greg Cote

Greg Cote

@gregcote

Greg Cote has been a Miami Herald sports columnist since 1995 and also writes the Random Evidence blog and NFL predictions along with his notorious sidekick the Upset Bird. He has covered Hurricanes football (1984-88), the Dolphins (1990-91) and major events including Super Bowls, NBA Finals, World Series, Stanley Cup, Olympics and World Cup.

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