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Brad Kaaya is a rising star, but can he restore Miami's declining reputation?

Quarterback Brad Kaaya is the new face of Miami Hurricanes football, the question is if he can lift the once-proud program back to prominence.

PINEHURST, N.C. — It’s dangerous to discuss “legacy” when talking about a player who recently ended his freshman year, but Brad Kaaya likes the pressure. That’s because the Miami quarterback isn’t ignorant to history. In fact, Kaaya embraces the legendary figures who helped mold the Hurricanes into a college football powerhouse. Kaaya is just the latest in a long line of Miami quarterbacks that includes names like Jim Kelly, Vinny Testaverde, Gino Torretta and Ken Dorsey. That kind of Hall-of-Fame tradition keeps Kaaya motivated.

Speaking to reporters at ACC media days on Monday, Kaaya pointed to his orange-and-green team polo. “I think about all the great quarterbacks that came before me,” he said. “I’m wearing the U right now. I think about that all the time." 

The logo on Kaaya’s shirt once scared every college football team in the nation. But lately, it’s been a while since anybody feared it. The ‘Canes have compiled a pedestrian 28–22 record in four seasons under coach Al Golden. A once-proud program has yet to play for the ACC title since joining the conference in 2004. In terms of recent history, the U is more accurately pronounced “The Who?”

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But Kaaya remains well versed in Miami history for one reason: He hopes to repeat it. The sophomore wants more than to become the next great Hurricane quarterback, he yearns to lead Miami back to the top of college football. And given the current state of the program, Kaaya could be the most important player in helping the Hurricanes take a step forward in 2015.

As a true freshman in 2014, Kaaya looked every bit like the future of the program. He started all 13 games, threw for 3,198 yards and led the ACC in passing efficiency (145.9). Kaaya set the Hurricanes’ single-game passing record for a freshman with 342 yards against Arkansas State on Sept. 13. The very next week, Kaaya broke his own mark by reeling off 359 yards and three touchdowns against Nebraska.

At season’s end, Kaaya’s 27 touchdown passes ranked third among FBS freshmen, but the two passers ahead of him—Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett and Arizona’s Anu Solumon—were redshirts. ACC coaches then voted Kaaya ACC Rookie of the Year. By most measurements, Kaaya had become a full-fledged star. But the quarterback deflected the spotlight during interviews on Monday. “It isn't just my show,” Kaaya said. “It's not just the Brad Kaaya show. It's going to take the offense, defense, special teams, all that.”

Miami won’t return to national dominance on the shoulders of one player, but Kaaya is perhaps more motivated than anyone by the way last season ended. Miami shot out to a 6–3 record in 2014 before faltering late and ending the year with four straight losses. That streak of futility included a tight 30–26 home loss to eventual ACC champion Florida State. Even worse, it cemented what was just the Hurricanes’ third losing season in 35 years.

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Kaaya took the ‘Canes’ struggles in stride and emerged as a bright spot within a down year. By the end of the season, his teammates didn’t recognize the freshman. That confidence bled over into the offseason, where linebacker Raphael Kirby said Kaaya studied film obsessively. The quarterback’s work off the field gave him a veteran-like poise in the eyes of several older teammates.

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“Now you see how he’s confident, calm, cool, collected,” Kirby said. “In the pocket, I mean, you can’t even tell when things go wrong in a game. His leadership has really improved.”

The spotlight will only get brighter for Kaaya in 2015. The problem is, the Hurricanes will look like a different team around him. They lost eight starters on offense, including four offensive linemen and their top two pass-catchers in tight end Chris Walford and receiver Phillip Dorsett. Kaaya also won’t have running back Duke Johnson, who left as the school's all-time leading rusher in the backfield. The Hurricanes’ defense experienced its own exodus, as well, losing All-American linebacker Denzel Perryman and five other starters.

It’s easy to see why Kaaya is the new face of Miami football. But the sophomore takes the reins at a time when the program needs to win. Golden has largely underachieved with the Hurricanes, and his seat is getting warmer. After winning nine games in 2013, the program took a step back last season despite a weak Coastal Division. The problem wasn’t talent, either; Miami had a whopping seven players picked in the 2015 NFL draft. The gathering cloud over Golden puts his future with the program in question.

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But Kaaya came to Miami to lead the program back to relevance. A Los Angeles native, Kaaya spurned late offers from USC and UCLA during recruiting to join the Hurricanes. Now the Trojans and Bruins are making inroads in the Pac-12. Kaaya doesn’t seem phased by what could’ve been. Instead, he thinks Miami isn’t far from the same contention in the ACC. For that to happen, a number of playmakers must slide into bigger roles alongside Kaaya, like wide receiver Stacy Coley and running backs Joe Yearby and Gus Edwards.

As Kaaya spoke to reporters on Monday, he wore an orange-and-green rubber bracelet inscribed with the phrase, “#TheTEAM”. The quarterback isn’t focused on games Miami lost last season, or the players it lost during the offseason. Instead, Kaaya sees a chance to revitalize the Hurricanes’ brand. Kaaya said he and his teammates know exactly what kind of force Miami used to be. Now the young leader wants to take an unproven roster and restore pride to the U.

“It’s a new era,” Kaaya said.