'Why not me?' True freshman QB Brad Kaaya quickly emerging as a leader for Miami

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FILE- In this Sept. 6, 2014, file photo, Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya watches from the sideline during the second half of an NCAA football game against Florida A&M in Miami Gardens, Fla. Kaaya was walking through the Miami campus earlier this week, totally unbothered and unnoticed as he strolled around Lake Osceola. Call it a rare moment of solitude for the Hurricanes' quarterback, who has been thrust into the fire as a freshman starter and is now getting ready for No. 24 Nebraska on Saturday night. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)


FILE- In this Sept. 13, 2014, file photo, Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya (15) prepares to pass against Arkansas State in the first half of an NCAA college football game in Miami Gardens, Fla. Kaaya was walking through the Miami campus earlier this week, totally unbothered and unnoticed as he strolled around Lake Osceola. Call it a rare moment of solitude for the Hurricanes' quarterback, who has been thrust into the fire as a freshman starter and is now getting ready for No. 24 Nebraska on Saturday night. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz, File)


CORAL GABLES, Florida — Brad Kaaya was taking a midday walk around Lake Osceola on the Miami campus one day this week, fiddling with his phone and perfectly blending in with other students.

For a rare moment, he seemed to be just like everyone else.

Such moments of solitude are rare for the Hurricanes' quarterback.

The start of Kaaya's college life has been the wildest of whirlwinds, replete with him moving 2,500 miles from his California home to enroll at Miami, coming into his first season buried on the Hurricanes' depth chart, emerging from training camp as the starter and doing things no other true freshman has in the program's storied history.

His next challenge? Kaaya and the Hurricanes (2-1) visit No. 24 Nebraska (3-0) Saturday night, in what will be one of the top-attended Miami games ever.

"It's been about taking it one step at a time and just soaking up every single moment," Kaaya said. "Since I got here in May, going through camp, I was a sponge, absorbing anything I could absorb, watching film, taking advantage of each and every moment and everything else I could, going day by day."

The approach seems to be working.

Kaaya threw for 342 yards — a Miami true freshman record, school officials said — and four touchdowns last week in a win over Arkansas State. No true freshman has more yards (693) or touchdowns (seven) so far this season than Kaaya, who remains solidly in the starting role even though senior Ryan Williams has been cleared to play following offseason knee surgery.

"You can never judge someone's work ethic, their sacrifice, their dedication, their ability to see it," Miami coach Al Golden said. "That part of it's hard to see. He was here live in camp, so we saw him throw live. We knew he had a good arm. But since he's arrived on campus he's lost about 22 pounds, he's learned a lot of football, he's moving better, he's quicker and he's just really mature."

The maturity has been needed.

Williams got hurt in spring practice, ending his chance to open the year as the starter. Kevin Olsen was on the team last year, but was suspended for the season's first two games and now isn't even a Miami student; his departure was announced Tuesday, one day after he was charged with DUI.

So with Williams and Olsen both out of the Week 1 mix, it came down to Kaaya and senior transfer Jake Heaps. Kaaya won the job and Miami has raved about him ever since.

"Nothing fazes him," running back Duke Johnson said. "He's been very cool ever since he got here."

That cool has been tested. Kaaya's first collegiate quarter wasn't even in the books before he got drilled in the chin on a sack, a play where he tasted blood in the back of his mouth and thought his jaw was broken.

Not long afterward, he threw his first Miami TD pass.

"I think he has been a leader for us," Golden said. "Whether he was the starter or not, he'd be a leader for us. He's demonstrated it. He's setting standards and he's demonstrating leadership ability and what needs to be done."

The cool will be tested again Saturday night, on national television.

More than 90,000 fans are expected at Nebraska, the overwhelming majority of them to be wearing Cornhusker red and not Hurricane orange. Nebraska is even honoring its 1994 national-title team, one that beat Miami 20 years ago to win that championship. The atmosphere will be frenetic, for certain.

"He's got such an awesome demeanor," offensive line coach Art Kehoe said. "If somebody says something to him, he doesn't get riled or flipped out. He's just a really cool customer."

Much like he doesn't let attention faze him, praise doesn't seem to inflate Kaaya's ego either.

He saw freshmen quarterbacks like Penn State's Christian Hackenburg and Houston's John O'Korn play at a high level last season, and figured there's no reason why he couldn't do the same.

"I saw what guys did before me," Kaaya said, "and said, 'Why not me?'"

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