There is an anecdote Brad Kaaya tells about Miami, one he relies on when people start asking about legacies.
As a boy growing up in California, Kaaya remembers seeing all the green-and-orange shirts around town when the Hurricanes arrived to play Nebraska in the 2002 Rose Bowl. When he played college football video games, he always played as Miami. There are still pictures of him somewhere in his house wearing Miami sweaters in high school.
"I’ve always loved Miami," he says simply.
Years after that Rose Bowl, a player largely ignored during recruiting had one scholarship offer going into his senior year. It came from Miami.
He took it.
Was this somehow an act of providence -- Kaaya and Miami's futures destined to intertwine and bring the Hurricanes back to prominence?
Kaaya, after all, specifically mentioned the 2002 Rose Bowl as one of his earliest memories. It is undeniable that he falls into the same mold as the quarterback on that championship team. Ken Dorsey and Kaaya share the same build (tall and lanky), style (pro), home state (California) and image (wholesome and clean-cut).
It also is undeniable that Kaaya is the best quarterback Miami has had since Dorsey, who won a school-record 38 games and finished as a Heisman finalist twice. Make no mistake: The drought between national championships at Miami directly correlates with the drought between elite quarterbacks.
So now that Miami has a potential star at quarterback, the comparisons to Dorsey come more frequently. The similarities are hard to ignore, but there are distinct differences in the programs each inherited.
When Dorsey arrived at Miami in 1999, the worst of crippling NCAA sanctions were over. He did not have to start as a true freshman. When he did win the starting job, Dorsey had perhaps the most talented roster in college football history to help him out. He also had a group of strong, vocal leaders, starting with Ed Reed.
When Kaaya arrived last year, Miami was still feeling the effects of another round of NCAA sanctions. He started as a true freshman, but he never really had complete command of the team. A leadership vacuum developed as the locker room splintered. And he had less talent and depth to draw on than Dorsey did after the NFL draft.
But there is renewed hope headed into 2015. The toughest position to get right on any team is quarterback. Miami, for the first time in 13 years, has it right.
Now the Canes have a stronger, better quarterback, a true leader, eager to build on a 3,000-yard passing season and all the ups and downs that come with playing as an 18-year-old rookie.
"He’s generating ideas, generating thoughts. Last year, it was a lot more rote memory, 'I’ve got to learn this play and I’ve got to learn this progression,'" coach Al Golden said. "When a quarterback starts to reach that creative excellence, where they’re trying to offer different combinations or different concepts, that’s a great sign, because it’s a far cry from where he was a year ago."
A year ago, Kaaya had no idea he would be the starting quarterback, winning the job during fall practice. He had no real chemistry or rhythm with his teammates. Then his offensive line crumbled in front of him. Yet he still won ACC Rookie of the Year honors, throwing for 3,198 yards and 26 touchdowns while completing 58.5 percent of his passes.
With a full year in the offseason conditioning program, Kaaya has transformed himself physically. Golden says Kaaya has a much better release, better footwork, stronger arm and stronger core. He says the team now sees his "command side."
Indeed, Kaaya has run the player-led offseason workouts with an authority that was missing last summer.
"He's gotten a lot more vocal and authoritative, like, 'I'm the quarterback, I'm the vocal leader of this offense -- even more so this team,'" receiver Braxton Berrios said.
The offense will look different. Gone are NFL picks Duke Johnson (top rusher), Phillip Dorsett (top receiver), Clive Walford (top tight end) and Ereck Flowers (top offensive lineman). But Miami has plenty of young talent surrounding Kaaya.
That is an even bigger reason why 2015 is critical for Miami. With Golden’s future tenuous, the Hurricanes need to have a good season to springboard them into 2016 -- when they could finally make a run at the ACC championship.
Miami has two seniors on the two-deep on offense -- receivers Rashawn Scott and Herb Waters. The defense loses many more seniors, but the potential for the offense with Kaaya as a junior next season is tantalizing. (Those into comparisons would note Dorsey was also a junior the year Miami won the Rose Bowl.)
Factor in a stellar class of commitments for 2016, and it’s not an overstatement to say Miami is at a critical juncture in its rebuilding process. Another mediocre season could mean Golden’s departure, and Miami would essentially have to start all over again.
That’s another big reason why expectations for Kaaya have grown.
"I recognized it was a good freshman year. I got some awards, that was cool," Kaaya said. "It’s just about having that same momentum for this season, getting all those guys to play around me. It isn’t just my show. It’s not just the Brad Kaaya show. It’s going to take the offense, defense, special teams, all that."
Kaaya might not see it this way, but people will be tuned in to see whether he can add to the Miami QB legacy.