University of Miami

Canes QB Brad Kaaya works on building team unity after tough season

Brad Kaaya said that ‘a lot of times there were fingers pointed within the team.’
Brad Kaaya said that ‘a lot of times there were fingers pointed within the team.’ MIAMI HERALD STAFF

There’s a new sign this spring in the University of Miami football locker room.

“Cliques kill.”

After a discouraging 6-7 season that likely exacerbated a schism between some players, Hurricanes quarterback Brad Kaaya said it’s there for a reason.

“You see our ‘United’ campaign,’’ the sophomore-to-be said in a sit-down interview with the Miami Herald late last week. “It’s not just some random campaign ad. It’s what we’re trying to get accomplished.

“You can’t have guys being outliers and kind of keeping to themselves or saying things under their breath. As a quarterback it’s really important to know your defensive guys well, too, because you’re playing with them. I feel like at times last year it was an offense and defense playing against our opponent, as opposed to the Miami Hurricanes playing against them.

“This year, it’s really important to be unified. And I think we’re doing a good job of it.’’

The Hurricanes began spring practice Tuesday, and after a season in which Kaaya garnered accolades as one of the finest quarterbacks in the nation — ACC Rookie of the Year among them after throwing for 3,198 yards and 26 touchdowns — he has emerged from the growing pains as the unquestionable team leader.

“I’ve been watching him this offseason and he has improved on so many levels when it comes to arm strength and accuracy — and leadership,’’ said departed senior Phillip Dorsett, who led the Hurricanes with 871 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns last season. “It’s going to come easy for him now because of that year of experience. He saw it all as a young pup. Now he’s older and more mature, and he’ll be a great leader.’’

Dorsett agreed that with losing sometimes comes turmoil, but he explained that he tried to insulate himself from any off-field drama.

“Things happen,’’ Dorsett said. “I kind of stayed out of that stuff because I always focused on football. Brad was our quarterback and I rode with him all season. He got me the ball and I was happy with that. He really tried to step up because you need your quarterback to be a good leader.’’

When asked if he felt a separation between some of the younger and older players, something multiple sources told the Herald, tailback Duke Johnson said, “No.’’

Johnson, who recently declared for the NFL Draft after his record-breaking junior season, said “To me, everything was cool in that aspect. It wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t really feel any separation. I just feel like last year things weren’t going the way we wanted, so of course people weren’t happy.

“When you lose, it’s tough on everybody.’’

The Canes have another closed practice Thursday, and then beginning Saturday open the first 15 or so minutes of nearly every session to the media. Spring practice concludes with the March28 spring game at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale — at noon and open to the public.

Kaaya, 19, also a top-notch business/economics student with a 3.2 grade-point average, said team chemistry has progressively improved. Last year, he said, “a lot of people got frustrated, a lot of times there were fingers pointed within the team. I feel like if we’re playing more for the guys next to us or the guys on the other side of the ball, we’ll accomplish more than if it’s just, ‘Oh, I’m going to make me and my boy look good.’

“Coach tells me this all the time: ‘You have to win the locker room first if you want to accomplish anything.’’’

So, Kaaya said he and his teammates are “bringing guys in and not letting them be on their own, doing a lot of team-bonding stuff. We went to the beach a month ago and we’re trying to go paint-balling in the next couple of weeks. Even the coaches are doing things like eating breakfast with us.

“Now, it’s easier for me to get guys together and say, ‘Hey, come run routes,’ or ‘Hey, we have to install the first part of the playbook.’’’

On the field, he said “a lot of things will be different because I know the playbook more. There’s a lot of new stuff going in, a lot of new concepts, protections run schemes. We’re opening up a lot more things — new packages, different tempos, more versatility as an offense.”

Dorsett said offensive coordinator James Coley “is changing a lot this year, and the guys are going to benefit from it. So, stay tuned.’’

It all starts with togetherness.

“One team, one love,’’ Kaaya said.

Related stories from Miami Herald