The redshirt sophomore quarterback has been a pleasant surprise this year, overcoming an early-season slump and a concussion or two while leading his team to an 8-4 record and a berth in the Sun Bowl.
And his name isn’t Luke Falk.
The other quarterback in El Paso, Texas, is Miami’s Brad Kaaya, who’s overcome more than a few obstacles to get the Hurricanes out of a regular season that’s been a bit irregular and into Saturday’s bowl game against Washington State.
Overcoming the sluggish start that led to the midseason firing of coach Al Golden — on the same day Kaaya suffered a concussion — the 6-foot-4, 215-pound pocket passer from Los Angeles has been a key player in the Hurricanes’ late-season surge.
Miami has won four of its past five games mostly because Kaaya has taken control of the offense in his second season as a starter. Through its first seven games, Miami was 121st in the country in third-down conversions, but over the last five games, the Hurricanes are 39th.
“I think a lot of guys on offense grew up a lot,” Kaaya said in a recent interview with ESPN. “I think the O-line matured a lot and we were able to convert a lot more third-and-shorts. That maturity has helped a lot and also limiting penalties. … It’s about getting into third-and-manageable, so coaches can just call our money plays.”
For Kaaya, that means the big plays. His overall stats (221 of 368 for 3,019 yards, 15 touchdowns and four interceptions) are modest compared with Falk’s, but he’s gotten better as the season progressed.
Kaaya gets better as the game wears on. In the second half of games this year, he’s completing 63 percent of his passes and getting 10.1 yards per attempt.
He’s not a big threat to run, but is mobile enough; he’s been sacked only 12 times this year and not at all in season-ending wins over Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh.
“He directs the football,” WSU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “He can make what appears to be a positive play defensively into a negative one real quick, because he is fairly mobile.
“But he can also beat you with his arm. He can throw guys open — you feel like you have a guy covered and he’s still going to put it in a spot where you’re not going to make a play,” Grinch said.
Like Falk, he has plenty of targets: Eight Hurricanes have at least 10 catches.
“He can make every throw,” Grinch said.
Kaaya started all 13 games as a freshman in 2014, but fans weren’t sure what to expect after the graduation of several key performers.
In one four-game stretch, the Hurricanes struggled past Florida Atlantic, blew a 24-point lead before beating Nebraska, then dropped back-to-back games at Cincinnati and Florida State.
Through that rough patch, “coach Golden talked about adversity and how to handle adversity,” Kaaya said.
The worst was yet to come. Miami improved to 4-2 with a win over Virginia Tech before everything caved in on Oct. 24. That’s when Kaaya was knocked out of the game with a concussion in the second quarter of a school-record 58-0 home loss to Clemson that cost Golden his job.
“It was pretty scary. I was seeing some weird colors, so you could definitely tell that something was wrong,” said Kaaya, who was held out of the Duke game the following week.
But the Hurricanes rebounded after the Clemson debacle.
“This bowl season the guys have a lot more energy and a lot more motivation to go out and finish strong, based on how we finished the regular season,” Kaaya said.