He’s Miami’s freshman phenom, the hope for the future, a glittering star in a season that at times has been dark.
After seven games, Hurricanes quarterback Brad Kaaya has emerged as one of the top young signal-callers in the nation.
Yet there’s one accomplishment Kaaya has yet to cross off his to-do list: win on the road.
His next opportunity will come at 8 p.m. Thursday in a nationally televised ESPN game from chilly Blacksburg, Va., where the Hurricanes (4-3, 1-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) will meet Virginia Tech (4-3, 1-2) in a crucial Coastal Division matchup.
“We’ve asked him to grow up quick and he’s done that,” UM coach Al Golden said of Kaaya. “So, we’ve got to do a good job protecting him and give him a chance to perform Thursday night.
“I know he will.”
Kaaya has completed 126 of 200 passes for 1,806 yards and 16 touchdowns, with nine interceptions – two apiece in each of his three road losses (and two of the six picks have come on UM’s last-gasp offensive play of the game).
He leads the ACC and ranks 18th nationally in passing touchdowns, 16th in passing efficiency and 19th in yards per completion.
He’s the only true freshman in the country (and one of only 12 quarterbacks of any age) to throw for more than 1,800 yards and at least 16 touchdowns.
What makes Kaaya special, according to offensive coordinator James Coley, is “how fast he processes the game.”
“That has been his biggest chip that he’s had to his favor,” Coley said. “He can see things and process [them] very fast and get to those reads and targets. The other part is the God-given ability of him throwing the football. He’s got really good hand talent and he’s able to adjust to receivers. He doesn’t necessarily have to change his arm angle. He can sometimes just flick his wrist and get the ball there.”
Coley cited Kaaya’s last touchdown to Phillip Dorsett against Cincinnati, a 79-yarder, as a prime example of his natural gift.
“There was a guy in his face and he didn’t put as much [on the throw] as he wanted to, and the only way he could get it out there was by using his hands” because he didn’t have the proper arm angle. “He just kind of flicked it and the ball went.”
Kaaya, always respectful, downplays his accomplishments and keeps his answers to reporters short and to the point.
Does he like playing in a prime-time game in front of a national television audience?
“I don’t really think about that part,” he said. “You can’t really, because then you’re going to be so stressed out that you’re probably more prone to make mistakes if you’re thinking about who’s watching.”
He said he hasn’t “been to Blacksburg, ever. I hear from all the seniors it’s a pretty tough place to play – just another challenge. I’ve already gotten a taste of that by playing three big away games.”
Make that three big losses beginning with the season opener Sept. 1 at Louisville, at Nebraska on Sept. 20 and at Georgia Tech on Oct. 4.
“We’ve already played in three hostile environments,” Kaaya said after UM’s last victory over Cincinnati. “So, I think we all have an idea of what to expect.”
His own defense, which faces him in practice, has boarded the Kaaya train.
“In Kaaya we trust,” cornerback Tracy Howard said. “Kaaya’s my boy – even through the ups and downs … I told him after we lost to Georgia Tech, as soon as he came off the field, ‘Look, man, I don’t care what goes on, I’m behind you.’
“He’s going to be a great quarterback in the future.”
Added cornerback Ladarius Gunter: “The best from Kaaya is yet to come.”
And the best from Virginia Tech, in a rivalry rife with intensity, is expected after the Hokies struggled without their top three running backs and were sloppy in their 21-16 loss last Thursday at Pittsburgh.
Kaaya will face a Hokies defense ranked second in the nation in sacks (28) and a pass defense ranked 23rd, with 202.7 yards allowed per game. On Thursday, that defense will be without VT middle linebacker and injured leading tackler Chase Williams, as well as injured standout defensive tackle Luther Maddy, a Delray Beach Atlantic High graduate.
But cornerback Kendall Fuller, the 2013 ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and a Thorpe Award nominee, is second nationally with 14 passes defended this season – including a 47-yard interception returned for a touchdown at North Carolina.
“I’m feeling pretty good, feeling well-rested,” Kaaya said. “It’s a new half of the season, so we’ve just got to look at what we can get better at and take it from there.”
And finally, what has Kaaya learned from his losses?
“Just to shake them off and not think about the past,” he said. “Next-play mentality. That’s the biggest thing.”