Big, bad Florida State defensive end Mario Edwards is coming after University of Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya.
No surprise there.
“Bother him, bother him early,” Edwards told reporters in Tallahassee. “Hit him, hit him often.”
Also not surprising: Kaaya will likely not be flustered — at least not before he gets his first introduction to the 6-3, 294-pound junior who has nine tackles for loss in the past five games.
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The Hurricanes’ true freshman quarterback is barely a novice by now, even though Saturday’s 8 p.m. showdown at Sun Life Stadium will be his first time facing the defending national champion Seminoles (9-0, 6-0 Atlantic Coast Conference).
Does Kaaya look at this as an enormous challenge or an enormous opportunity?
“It’s an enormous opportunity to prove something to the world,” he said of the Hurricanes (6-3, 3-2).
“A lot of people doubted us. I’m sure a lot of people still continue to, and they have good reason to. We just have got to keep progressing as a team and keep doing what we’ve been doing these last couple months.”
Kaaya has thrown 17 touchdowns in the past seven weeks, with no interceptions in UM’s past three games. With 2,087 passing yards and four remaining games (including a bowl), Kaaya needs 243 more to break Bernie Kosar’s freshman record of 2,329 yards in 1983.
Kaaya is on pace to become the sixth Miami quarterback in school history to throw for 2,500 yards in their first full season as a starter.
The quarterbacks whose company he would join: Stephen Morris, Jacory Harris, Ken Dorsey, Gino Torretta and Vinny Testaverde. Forty-percent of that list (Torretta and Testaverde) won Heisman Trophies. Dorsey was invited as a finalist.
Kaaya? He’s just doing it coach Al Golden’s way, one opponent at a time. The 19-year-old from Los Angeles is the 11th most efficient quarterback in the FBS, completing 144 of 233 passes, with an ACC-leading 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
One more touchdown pass and Kaaya will crack UM’s single-season all-time top-10 list. Three more and he ties Dorsey’s 2001 total in UM’s last national title year.
“I still think they’re going to run the ball with Duke [Johnson] and be physical,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “But they create the play actions off of it, and they definitely loosen the reins on him because they’ve got playmakers outside, and the tight end [Clive Walford]. So you see him really grind.
“When you get to him he’s able to absorb the blitz, give ground, make some unbelievable throws.”
Kaaya said his recent improvement has mostly come in “game awareness, game operation, just knowing situations. You have to know your down-and-distance always, you have to score in the red zone, you have to convert on third down and you need short yardage as well.”
The Seminoles are tied for 80th nationally in passing yards allowed per game (238.3), 50th in total defense (374) and 33rd in scoring defense (22.4).
Teams have been able to jump on FSU early this season, Kaaya was told, and somehow the Seminoles always find a way to “flip a switch” in the second half.
“I don’t want to give away our game plan,” he responded with a grin.
He said running back Johnson’s success “sets up the whole offense” and that he is satisfied with however many passes he gets. “Whatever wins us games is fine.”
This week, Kaaya has been studying FSU’s defense, but he said he has spent plenty of time watching Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston.
Winston “always finds a way to win,” he said, “and is really good” at eliminating distractions.
“No matter what is going on he still knows his role, and he still straps it up and plays hard every game.”
Kaaya said he grew up watching the UM-FSU rivalry and knows its complexion, even if he’s not from South Florida.
“Everyone knows it’s a big rivalry,” he said. “Just treat it like any other game.”
The Hurricanes, Kaaya noted, have been advised not to try to do too much.
“In big games, a lot of guys go [in] thinking, ‘Oh, I have to do this and that and be the man.’
“In actuality, you just have to play your game.”