Greg Cote

How high can he go? QB Kaaya embraces pressure, high standard of leading Canes

“Pressure is a good thing,” says UM quarterback Brad Kaaya. “A 10-win season should be the standard at Miami.”
“Pressure is a good thing,” says UM quarterback Brad Kaaya. “A 10-win season should be the standard at Miami.”

How high can he go?

We would only ask that of a quarterback with such talent and promise, and the University of Miami’s Brad Kaaya inspires the imagination that way.

“He is the leader of the offense and leader of this team, and that’s undisputed,” says new coach Mark Richt of his most important player. “And it couldn’t be in better hands than his.”

But how high can he go?

Can Kaaya be the NFL’s overall No. 1 draft pick in 2017? It is improbable but hardly preposterous, presuming this is his final college season and he forgoes his senior year for the pros, a distinct possibility for which Hurricanes fans and new coach Mark Richt must unfortunately prepare.

Kaaya frequently is projected as high as second overall behind Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson in many early mock drafts, and there is some thought that, at 6-4 and from a pro-style offense, UM’s guy might better fit the NFL model. (I can already hear the Kaaya-to-Miami chatter locally, if the Dolphins’ coming season is bad enough to see patience for Ryan Tannehill finally run out and to give the Fins a high-enough pick.)

He deflects deftly the draft speculation.

“I have an obligation to put my heart into this coming season,” he says. “It’s got to be about this season.”

Can Kaaya, this season, sneak into the Heisman Trophy conversation? This is dicier, less in his control. Watson is the preseason betting favorite because Clemson is seen as a national power with a great shot to be in the four-team College Football Playoff.

Kaaya will crash the Heisman watch lists less by personal statistics than by leading No. 26-ranked Miami into the top 10, onto the national radar and toward the school’s first season of 10-plus wins since 2003. A launch point for all of that loftiness could require beating the mighty nemesis Florida State here Oct. 8. (Hey nobody said life was easy.)

None of that is off the table with Kaaya.

“Pressure is a good thing,” as he puts it. “An 8-4 regular season is average for people here. A 10-win season should be the standard at Miami. I commend the people of South Florida for that. They should hold us to a standard of excellence. Look at the guys who came before us.”

How high, among those guys who came before, can Kaaya climb in the UM record books? He already is fifth in career passing yards with 6,436, putting Ken Dorsey’s all-time Canes record of 9,565 in reach this season. He would break the record if he has a season similar to last year’s 3,238 yards. Dorsey’s career record of 86 touchdown passes could be in play if Kaaya surprised us and stayed through his senior season.

By any estimation, the Los Angeles-born Kaaya — who turns 21 the day of the Sept. 3 season opener vs. Florida A&M — will leave judged among the best quarterbacks in school history, heady stuff considering Miami (and not without cause) used to call itself “Quarterback U.”

That designation had grown a bit dusty and rusty but seems to have reawakened with Kaaya, who last season became the first QB in 11 years to be named team MVP.

He enters the season up to 218 pounds, 13 more than he weighed as a freshman.

“I’m feeling good and moving well,” he says. “That’s a good weight for me.”

Kaaya, though, could leave as one of the most prolific passers in Canes history and still not enjoy an invitation into the pantheon. That requires more than stats. That requires huge winning. A national championship, ideally. UM and South Florida ache to add another one of those to the five UM won between 1983 and 2001.

When you accomplish that, no matter the stats, you get to be Bernie Kosar and Dorsey, golden for all time. Canes legends.

When you put up huge numbers but without the huge winning, you are Jacory Harris and Stephen Morris. They are second and third in career passing yards and touchdowns, yet footnotes in program history and lore.

Here are UM’s all-time top 10 quarterbacks (says me), after which I will mention where I would slot Kaaya entering this season:

1. Ken Dorsey (1999-2002): Winningest QB in school histuory at 38-2, leading a 34-game win streak. Led team to 2001 national championship and near-miss in 2002; was MVP of both Sugar and Rose bowls. Twice top five in Heisman vote. Still owns school marks for most career passing yards (9,565) and TDs (86).

2. Bernie Kosar (1982-84): As a freshman, led UM to its first of five national titles in 1983. In ’84 set season records that still stand more than 30 years later: 3,642 passing yards and 262 completions. Ring of Honor.

3. Gino Torretta (1989-92): School itself calls him the “most honored player in UM hostory.” Led 1991 championship, was ’92 All-American and Heisman winner. Went 26-2 as starter as part of record 58-game, home winning streak. First Canes QB inducted into College Hall of Fame. Ring of Honor.

4. Steve Walsh (1985-88): A 1988 All-American and fourth in Heisman vote, after his 29 TDs set Miami season record that still stands. Was 23-1 as starter and led team to 12-0 record and ’87 national title. Two-time MVP. Ring of Honor.

5. Vinny Testaverde (1982, 1984-86): College Hall of Fame and school’s first Heisman winner, and an All-American, in 1986. Was redshirted during ’83 title season but 21-1 as regular-season starter. Two-time MVP. Ring of Honor. His No. 14 is retired. The one blemish: Crushing loss in ’86 season Fiesta Bowl denied Testaverde his last chance to win a championship. (And in the Time Flies Dept., Vincent Testaverde, Vinny’s son, was competing to be the Canes’ 2016 backup QB.)

6. George Mira (1961-63): “The Matador” was a 1962-63 All-American and the first Canes QB to have his jersey number (10) retired. Fifth in ’62 Heisman vote. Led nation in total offense as senior. Tied NCAA record for career completions. Ring of Honor.

7. Jim Kelly (1979-82): He led the milestone 1979 win over Penn State that was a harbinger of the dynasty soon to come and was ’81 team MVP. Ring of Honor.

8. Craig Erickson (1987-90): Was 21-3 as starter and led team to 1989 national championship. Won Unitas Golden Arm trophy in ’90.

9. Fran Curci (1957-59): UM’s first star quarterback of note (and later briefly its head coach). First-team All-American in ’59.

10. Jacory Harris (2008-11): Nosing out Stephen Morris for the final spot, Harris set UM record for most career completions with 703 and is second in career yards and TDs. But his teams were only 22-16 and 0-2 in bowls.

I would place Kaaya around the 7 to 8 range entering this season but think he can pass Mira and Testaverde into the top five. Hard to rise any higher around here without adding a ring to the family’s jewelry box.

Then again, what’s more fun or greater about sports than a challenge?

As Kaaya put it, “Pressure is a good thing.”