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Searching for QB, Miami still has optimism

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) Miami coach Al Golden's voice was raspy and barely audible after a recent practice, and even that couldn't stop him from running down a list of everything that's gotten better for the Hurricanes.

There's a new turf field for workouts, one of many recent training and facility upgrades. His team is stronger than in recent years, another big plus. Most importantly, Golden's fourth season at Miami is already different than any of his first three - since the NCAA probe revolving around the actions of a former booster is finally a thing of the past.

''We're back to talking about who we are and not defending who we aren't,'' Golden said. ''It's just different.''

Maybe the team's fortunes will be different this season as well.

With star running back Duke Johnson healthy again after his 2013 season ended early because of a broken ankle, and plenty of playmakers on both sides of the football, the Hurricanes are expected to be in the mix for the Atlantic Coast Conference's Coastal Division title. But there is a major question still to be answered, that being who will be the starting quarterback when the season begins at Louisville on Sept. 1.

Ryan Williams would have been the presumed starter but is still recovering from a torn knee ligament, though is expected back at some point this season. Transfer Jake Heaps and true freshman Brad Kaaya seem like the top contenders for the job, and neither has thrown a pass at Miami. The Hurricanes aren't likely to name a starter until at least the week of Aug. 18.

''I think both of those guys have got in a groove and have got in a little bit of a zone right now,'' offensive coordinator James Coley said of Heaps and Kaaya. ''Those guys are competing extremely hard against each other.''

The winner of the quarterback job will get plenty of help from Johnson, not to mention a talented crop of receivers.

''You can't judge the team's heart,'' Johnson said. ''You can't judge the dedication and their hard work. You can look at us from the outside and say, `Yeah, they lost their quarterback and some key components on the offensive line,' but you can't see how we're working every day.''

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Here's five things to watch about Miami this season:

SCHEDULE: No favors for the Hurricanes here. Miami's 2013 season ended with a one-sided loss to Louisville in the Russell Athletic Bowl, and the Hurricanes open this season as the Cardinals' opponent for their ACC debut. The Hurricanes also visit Nebraska and Virginia Tech, and will get defending national champion Florida State at home in November.

DUKE'S TOUCHES: The Hurricanes were leery about giving Johnson too many touches in each of the last two seasons, trying to preserve him. It doesn't appear like that will be in the plans this fall. Johnson has made it clear that he wants the ball as much as he can, and is welcoming the challenge of seeing plenty of eight-man defensive fronts - which will likely be the norm until Miami's passing game proves itself.

QUARTERBACK WHO: The graduation of Stephen Morris left an obvious glaring hole, and the ACL injury that Williams has dealt with since spring ball didn't help matters. Williams has been practicing and his rehab seems ahead of schedule, but Heaps - who is playing for his third school - and Kaaya have been getting much of the first-string reps in camp.

DEFENSE CONCERNS: The Hurricanes' defense has been on the field an average of 34 minutes per game over the last two seasons, the second-highest total among all major college teams. It's absolutely vital that Miami get better on third downs, and that the gains made last year when the Hurricanes started embracing more of a 3-4 set carry over into this season. Or else, the same problems that plagued Miami in 2012 and 2013 will return, quickly.

DEEP BALL: Miami had 10 receivers with catches of 25 or more yards last season. If defenses are going to be kept honest and not able to stack the box against Johnson, finding a way to keep the deep ball in the repertoire would seem crucial.

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