The right arm of QB Brad Kaaya is the key to Miami's hopes
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) Mark Richt and Brad Kaaya hit it off quickly when they started forging a relationship, which is the first good sign for the Miami Hurricanes.
Of course, neither has seen the other under fire - yet.
That'll change soon enough. Richt, the former Miami quarterback, is now the Hurricanes' coach because 15 successful years at Georgia didn't merit a 16th with the Bulldogs. His fortunes this season are probably tied to the right arm of Kaaya, the brilliant junior quarterback and undisputed leader of a program that went 8-5 last season but hasn't enjoyed a bowl win in a decade and still is looking for its first Atlantic Coast Conference title.
''Brad is really fun to coach,'' Richt said. ''Real smart. Coachable. Teachable. That guy is as coachable of a guy as I've been around. He loves football. He loves his teammates. He is a very nice person.''
He's also eager for a breakthrough 2016.
The Hurricanes aren't the Hurricanes of lore anymore, now 15 years removed from their last national title and entering a season where expectations aren't exactly high.
But few would argue that Kaaya isn't good enough to carry Miami closer to the top. While he'll have a decision after this year about whether to go pro, he's insisting that his sole focus is leading the Hurricanes back to the upper echelon of the ACC.
''That's the plan as of right now. Right now it's a Coastal (division) and ACC championship,'' Kaaya said. ''You can say all the things you want about Miami and all the championships we've won getting back to years past. One thing we've never done is won an ACC championship and a Coastal championship. That's our goal for the season, yes.''
Here's what to know about Miami:
Bringing alumni back to the program is an obvious priority for Richt. It's not like his most recent predecessors - Larry Coker, Randy Shannon and Al Golden - shunned former Miami players, because to say they did would be inaccurate. But Richt has already seems to be having more success on that particular front, getting Ray Lewis, Michael Irvin (whose son is on the this team, a freshman), Warren Sapp, Jeremy Shockey and more all together for a weekend camp this summer. Things like that go a long way in recruiting.
GET TO KNOW HIM
Freshman linebacker Shaquille Quarterman may start from Day 1, and might be the best linebacker on the roster already.
''It's been a learning experience,'' Quarterman said. ''I'm on a bigger stage now, so I can't afford to make mental errors at this level. It would only hurt the team.''
Remember, they used to call Miami ''Quarterback U.'' Kaaya has already put himself on lists next to the school's all-time greats. At his current pace Kaaya could be Miami's all-time passing leader by the time this season ends, ahead of Ken Dorsey. He's also eight touchdown throws away from becoming the third player to throw for 50 TDs while wearing the ''U'' on his helmet.
The Richt era begins Saturday, Sept. 3, against Florida A&M. It'll be at the stadium the Hurricanes share with the Miami Dolphins - provided an offseason construction project is done in time (all indications are it will be). If a contingency plan is needed, Orlando is a possible site, though that seems unlikely at best.
The Florida State game (which the Hurricanes will host on Oct. 8) is always huge, but others could be Sept. 17 at Appalachian State (a road debut against an 11-game winner last year), the span of Oct. 15 against North Carolina and Oct. 20 at Virginia Tech (a six-day window that could decide the Coastal), at Notre Dame on Oct. 29 and the season-finale at home against Duke on Nov. 26 (eight-lateral rematch, anyone?).
For as good as Kaaya is, there are serious depth issues. The offensive line is very thin, and if Kaaya goes down Miami would face huge problems. Miami should be able to score in bunches, though the defense is still suspect. And the penalty problems that embarrassed the Hurricanes a year ago simply can't be back; Miami isn't good enough to give tons of yards away again. All that said, they can win the Coastal. The pick here is a 9-3 season, if all goes right.