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Brad Kaaya ready to step into FSU-Miami rivalry

Growing up in California, Brad Kaaya's best introduction to the Florida State-Miami rivalry came through video games, where the “wide right” play was a staple, he said.

He watched a handful of the FSU-Miami tilts on TV, but Kaaya also came of age long after the rivalry had peaked. In fact, it’s been a decade since Kaaya’s Hurricanes have won at home against Florida State, and while he didn’t grow up around the rivalry, he understands what that monkey on Miami’s back means.

“For me, it’s like UCLA and USC,” said Kaaya, who grew up outside Los Angeles. “There’s guys on both teams who played together in high school.”

For the Florida natives, this game is personal, and so the pressure is now on Kaaya to go to bat for his teammates to defend home turf in his adopted home state.

“There’ll probably be a lot of trash talk before the game, and I’m sure guys are texting each other right now,” Kaaya said. “I don’t know anybody on the other team so I can’t do that, but I’ve definitely got to help my Florida brothers out.”

When the season began with a 31-13 loss at Louisville, it certainly seemed like the formula for Miami’s success would be the other way around. For Kaaya, a true freshman who arrived at Miami this summer, it was a step into the big leagues that few make easily. But he was surrounded by talent at the offensive skill positions, and the hope was that his teammates could do enough to make Kaaya’s life a little easier.

That’s happened, of course, as Duke Johnson has blossomed into a fringe Heisman candidate and Phillip Dorsett and Clive Walford have been vital weapons in the passing game. But the real key to Miami’s midseason improvement has been Kaaya, who hardly plays like a true freshman anymore.

Kaaya leads the ACC in yards-per-attempt (9.0), touchdown passes (20) and passer rating (157.6). In his last five games, he’s thrown 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Kaaya has as many completions of 20-plus yards against FBS teams as Baylor star Bryce Petty (34).

Kaaya has grown up, and it’s showing on the field.

“It feels completely different,” Kaaya said. “I’ve learned a lot of things you can’t really learn without actually being in a game. In practice you can learn how to throw to windows or learn route timing, but there’s just that certain aspect of actually being in the game that there’s nothing like it when the bullets are actually flying.”

It’s not that they’ve all been easy lessons, and Kaaya has made his share of mistakes this season, too. But he’s taken steps each week, and he’s shown consistent improvement.

That’s been particularly true on Kaaya’s deep throws. His lofty yards-per-attempt average illustrates the success, but what’s been more striking is how much that’s evolved from the opening week.

In Kaaya’s first two games, he threw just six passes for 20 yards or more. Two were intercepted. Since then, however, he’s gone deep 24 times, connected for touchdowns on six of those throws, and hasn’t thrown another INT.

Chalk it up in part to Kaaya’s rapidly developed maturity, but the other ingredient has been Miami’s superb run game. In that same span, the Hurricanes have rushed for an average of 6.7 yards per carry -- the second-best rate for any Power 5 conference team.

“We’ve gotten into better scenarios,” Kaaya said. “We’ve set them up a lot better instead of just taking shots. We’re setting up the whole offense. Duke is running good. ... That’s really setting up a lot of good play-action passing, a lot of good trick plays, and a lot of good vertical passing concepts.”

All that progress figures to get its biggest test of the season Saturday, however. Florida State offers an athletic secondary and an aggressive approach, and the Seminoles will be out to test just how quickly Kaaya has grown on the job.

“They are athletes that can match any offense,” Kaaya said of FSU’s defense. “They have athletes all across the board. They’re really good at playing man coverage. They roll safeties down and blitz off the edge, and they also love to bring the cornerback blitzes as well. They’re gutsy with a lot of their calls because they flat-out know how to execute.”

It’s games like this that separate the freshmen from the veterans, but Kaaya knows there’s even more on the line than that.

This is a game that defines the season, the game that means everything to the guys who’ll have to hear the smack talk from former high school teammates for the rest of the year.

In games like this, there’s no time to grow up on the job. It’s just about executing.

“There’s no game like this on our schedule,” Kaaya said. “This Florida State game tops all the other games. Everyone says this is a whole other animal.”