University of Miami

Miami Hurricanes seek answers for red zone, third down

UM quarterback Brad Kaaya is hit by Nebraska's Jonathan Rose after a throw in the third quarter at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015.
UM quarterback Brad Kaaya is hit by Nebraska's Jonathan Rose after a throw in the third quarter at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

When Brad Kaaya walks up to the line of scrimmage, it’s up to him to decide what play the University of Miami offense is going to run.

Offensive coordinator James Coley arms him with a series of options based on the package he calls for. Then, it’s make or break time.

“What most quarterbacks do is look at the front, how many down linemen there are, the linebacker alignment and then the safety rotation,” Kaaya said.

Judged solely on his performance on first and second downs, Kaaya has played the quarterback position like a Jedi Master, completing 71 of his 102 pass attempts (69.6 percent) for 958 yards and four touchdowns. Put him in third down or in the red zone and suddenly the super sophomore and the Hurricanes have looked quite ordinary — less than ordinary, actually.

Through four games, Kaaya has completed only 13 of his 35 pass attempts on third down, the second-worst completion percentage (37.1) of any of the top 100 quarterbacks in the country with at least 25 third-down pass attempts. Inside the red zone, Kaaya has just as much trouble no matter what down it is. He’s 12 of 32 with four touchdowns and one interception.

Why? Coley, Kaaya and the Hurricanes (3-1) have been searching for that answer for a while now, examining personnel, structure and the way those situations are attacked, coach Al Golden said Wednesday.

“We’ve looked at a lot of different things and obviously a lot I can’t tell you, but we’ve had a good examination of it, and we know what we want to do,” Golden said. “It’s all of us. It’s not Brad. We’ve got to do a better job protecting him and be more consistent for him.”

A national TV audience will find out Saturday night just how much the Canes have figured out when they take on 12th-ranked Florida State (4-0) at Doak Campbell Stadium.

For one, Coley said, the problem hasn’t been Kaaya’s decision-making when he’s at the line or the play he’s decided to go with after surveying the defense.

“He’s right on the money [with his calls],” Coley said. “We’ve just got to make him right on the field. Again, you don’t know that until you come out there and watch the film like we watch it. We got a different view from everybody. But you’re sitting there and talking about that call everyone is talking about.”

That call Coley is referring to was Kaaya’s decision to audible to a run on third-and-six at the Cincinnati 10-yard line last Thursday night. Trailing 27-20 midway through the fourth quarter, Kaaya said he saw two high safeties expecting pass. So he opted for the run — thinking it would pay off like it did in a similar situation in the second quarter when Joe Yearby scored on an 8-yard TD run. Only this time it didn’t because Coley said one of his linemen failed to pick up a block on the backside and freshman Mark Walton was hit for only a 1-yard gain.

“As a fan, media, you guys do what you’ve got to do,” Coley said. “Ultimately, it’s my fault. We’ve got to get it right. Execution is part of the job. That’s on me.”

Failing to execute a few key plays here or there are a part of the game. But what’s hard to stomach for Coley is how Kaaya and his receivers aren’t even connecting.

Fifth-year senior Rashawn Scott has been targeted a team-leading nine times on third down and only has two catches for 20 yards — one of which went for a first down against Cincinnati. Senior Herb Waters and sophomore Tyre Brady are next on the list with five targets on third down. Brady has two catches that went for first downs. Waters doesn’t have a single catch. Fourth-year junior Malcolm Lewis has been targeted twice on third down without a catch as well.

Where Kaaya has had most of his success on money downs is checking down to his running backs and tight ends. Walton (four targets) and Yearby (four targets, including a fourth-down catch) have converted on money downs five of the eight times they’ve been targeted out of the backfield.

Since pass protection has been an issue on third down because teams usually bring more pass rushers, Coley said the Canes have been simulating those situations more in practice.

Could UM’s woes simply be that Kaaya doesn’t have any dependable receivers to throw to? Does he miss tight end Clive Walford, receiver Phillip Dorsett and running back Duke Johnson that much?

“He’s got dependable guys on this team,” Coley said. “Rashawn Scott is dependable. Herb Waters is dependable. Our receivers, he has confidence in those guys. But in crucial drives and crucial situations where it’s important, we need to execute. Either way, the percentage is low, and we have to get it up. It starts with me. I’ve got to do a better job coaching it.”

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