Brad Kaaya sat with his fellow University of Miami quarterbacks at a table outside the Schwartz Center for Athletic Excellence on a sweltering August day Friday, the sandwiches he chose for lunch surrounded by a pack of digital recorders.
“[Offensive coordinator] James Coley says you’re 30 years old,’’ deadpanned a reporter. “Is that true?”
“No, it isn’t,’’ the soft-spoken Kaaya responded, grinning. “Eighteen — going on 19.’’
Kaaya, pegged by many Miami fans as the boy wonder who will take them into a new, winning era of Hurricanes football, spoke to reporters for the first time as a college freshman, a privilege extended only on media day — or until he gets in his first game.
Meanwhile, two chairs to his left, 23-year-old Jake Heaps, the other quarterback who is listed with Kaaya as the co-No. 1 starter in a battle still too close to call, calmly watched the commotion over his teammate.
“I just take it day by day,’’ said Kaaya, who turns 19 two days after UM’s Sept. 1 opener at Louisville. “For me, just stay humble. Jakes’s a good quarterback. There’s still a ways to go until they make the decision. Another week or two we’ll know, but right now it’s still a competition.
“Me and Jake are good friends.’’
Suddenly, from two seats over: “So he thinks.’’
It was all in good fun Friday, with Kaaya swamped by journalists.
The stream toward the friendly, confident Heaps was steady, just not as frenetic because he has been available for interviews since fall camp began.
Kaaya, a 6-4, 206-pound All-American who led West Hills (California) College Preparatory to a 23-3 record as a starter and threw for a school-record 3,855 yards during a state-championship senior season, has performed well beyond his years since arriving in May.
He is fine-tuned on and off the field — mentally, physically and mechanically. He has an uncanny presence in the pocket, makes his progressions calmly and methodically and knows when to throw away the ball.
“He’s mature,’’ said Coley, the first coach to recruit Kaaya in high school. “He’s just a different type of freshman. He comes across almost like he’s a junior, like he’s done this before. I’ve been on him like a dog for the last two days and really coaching him and putting a lot of pressure on him. And he doesn’t melt. … It’s hard to crack him.’’
Offensive line coach Art Kehoe, who coached at UM when its last great quarterback, Ken Dorsey, led the Canes to a national title, said Kaaya is special.
“You know how a couple of my O-linemen will turn around because someone is a freshman and go, ‘Hey Jerk!’ — or say something wise? They don’t do that with him. Every time I watch that kid, he’s composed.’’
And this from freshman defensive end Chad Thomas: “He’s like a Superman walking on campus. When it’s time to play football and he’s got a call and you sit there and scream his name, he won’t even look at you. He’s focused.”
Kaaya, who was heavily pursued by schools such as USC and UCLA after he committed to Miami, said he has loved the Hurricanes since he watched them win the national championship when he was 6.
“I stepped foot on campus and just felt like a different vibe, different from anywhere else I visited,’’ Kaaya said of UM. “I have to think it’s the vibe of the coaches. It’s a more genuine feel than anywhere else I visited, not to diss any other school.’’
Kaaya said that fifth-year senior quarterback Ryan Williams, recuperating from reconstructive knee surgery, and Heaps have helped him immeasurably during the summer, but that “there’s no sense in hiding’’ the fact that he and Heaps each badly want the starting job. “Just embrace the competition.
“My goal since I’ve been here was to be the starter,’’ he said. “But at the same time I want to contribute in any way I can possible.’’
Kaaya is the son of former actress Angela Means, who among her roles is known for the part she played as a young woman named Felicia in the 1995 comedy Friday — a fact that is not lost on the Hurricanes, who occasionally tease him.
His father, Brad Kaaya Sr., is married to his stepmother Wendy. They have a 5-year-old daughter, Kaaya’s sister, named Charlie, and own a hair products company called “Mixed Chicks.’’
Brad Sr., who rowed for the crew team at UC-Davis, said it’s hard for his family back in the Los Angeles area to be so far away because they miss him.
But he said they’re thrilled that he’s thriving “in a new, vibrant, multi-national city. I think that experience being somewhere else will make him grow. When I talk to him and hear his voice he already sounds much more mature than he did two months ago. I didn’t know as a freshman he’d make this big of an impact, so he’s inspiring me.’’
Kaaya said he’s still “an unknown” around campus, and admitted “there were certain times’’ he thought about staying in Southern California.
“When you’re on the edge of being uncomfortable, that’s when people grow the most,’’ he said. “It wasn’t the most comfortable decision. It was a bit scary. If I wanted to stay home and have fun and hang out with all my high school friends I could have easily done that, but I feel that coming here has helped me as a player and as a man.’’