CORAL GABLES, Florida — Brad Kaaya had an award-winning season as a freshman in 2014, and that meant the Miami quarterback earned a trip to the league's championship weekend in North Carolina to pick up some trophies.
His goal is to go back this year, but not for individual honors.
"I want to go back to Charlotte," Kaaya said, "and I want our team to be going with me."
Translated: It's all about winning the Coastal Division this year for the Hurricanes, who still have yet to play in an Atlantic Coast Conference championship game and are frankly sick of hearing that stat. They would have been there a couple years ago if not for self-imposed sanctions over rules broken by a former booster, but even after a 6-7 season and seeing seven players get picked in the NFL Draft the Hurricanes think this could — or should — be a breakout year.
"I wanted to come to the University of Miami to be a part of the tradition and legacy," said coach Al Golden, who's entering his fifth season at the university. "It's incumbent on us to get it back to where we want it to be. Not just get it back, but have a model that is sustainable and can endure."
Golden's fate might hang in the balance this season, though he still has the support of the university administration.
Kaaya is the unquestioned leader. He doesn't even turn 20 until early September, but the sophomore has command of both the offense and the locker room. He threw for 3,198 yards and 26 touchdowns as a true freshman who was a surprise winner of the starting job, had just three interceptions in his final seven games (after throwing nine in his first six) and came back even stronger this year.
Miami finished last season on a four-game slide, one that started with a gutwrenching 30-26 loss to Florida State. Kaaya said the culture of this year's team won't allow another collapse like that to happen.
"It isn't just my show. It's not just the Brad Kaaya show," he said. "It's going to take the offense, defense, special teams, all that. Just inspiring those guys to play hard and knowing that everyone is a factor."
Some things to note about the Hurricanes heading into the season:
SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Miami opens with Bethune-Cookman at home and then visits Florida Atlantic. After that, yikes. Of Miami's last 10 opponents, nine went to bowls last season. And October in particular is a monster for Miami — at Cincinnati, at Florida State, home for Virginia Tech, home for Clemson, then at Duke. It will be a defining month for the program, as far as where it stands and quite possibly its future.
RUNNING DEPTH: The most experienced returning running backs are Joe Yearby (86 carries, 520 yards, 1 TD last season) and 235-pound bruiser Gus Edwards (61 carries, 349 yards, 6 TD). Yearby went 10 pounds over his goal weight but Miami was fine with it because he kept adding muscle. And for a big man, Edwards is blazing — his top speed has been measured at just over 21 mph, which is absurd for someone his size. True freshman Mark Walton figures to be in the carries mix as well.
NEW LEADERS: LB Raphael Kirby seems primed to take over as the leader on defense, and Miami's thinking is that the Hurricanes will be more aggressive on that side of the ball. A huge emphasis has been placed on creating more takeaways (Miami was minus-1 in the turnover department in 2014) and Golden has not been shy about saying that having more depth than at any other time in his tenure has created more competition at plenty of positions.
UNLUCKY 21: It seems like 21 points was the breaking point for Miami in 2014. When the Hurricanes held opponents to 20 points or less, they were 5-0. When opponents scored 21 or more, Miami was 1-6. Scoring points isn't the issue at Miami; over the last decade the Hurricanes are 53-10 when holding teams under that 21-point mark, 19-44 otherwise.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Miami didn't have a punt return of better than 29 yards last season, nor a kickoff return of more than 41 yards. Opponents averaged nearly 25 yards per kickoff return against the Hurricanes, and in the four-point loss to Florida State it can't be forgotten that Miami had an extra-point attempt blocked and failed to capitalize on a 29-yard field goal try.