WSU Sun Bowl: Q&A with Miami insider, Part I

LONGTIME FLORIDA SPORTS REPORTER Walter Villa has been tracking the Miami Hurricanes since the 1970s. This season, he's been in the press box for most home games and, with the help of his DVR, has watched every play from Miami's 2015 campaign. Here’s the first part of a highly informative Q&A on Washington State's Sun Bowl opponent -- from a ‘Canes authority.

COUGFANcom: WSU's Jason Gesser said on the radio this week Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya has a live arm but tends to be inaccurate. What’s your take on Kaaya, and what’s the No. 1 thing WSU fans should be aware of when it comes to the Hurricane QB?

Villa: Kaaya’s accuracy has actually increased. He was the ACC Rookie of the Year last season when he completed 58.5 percent of his passes for 3,198 yards, 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. As a sophomore this season, Kaaya improved even though Miami lost most of his top teammates from the 2014 offense, including three starters on the line. (Left tackle Ereck Flowers was a first-round pick and the NFL also took deep-threat wide receiver Phil Dorsett, outstanding tight end Clive Walford and one of the greatest running backs in Canes history, Duke Johnson).

None of those players were replaced with better performers, yet Kaaya’s accuracy increased to 61.7 percent, and his interceptions fell to only four. He threw for 3,019 yards, which means that his average yards per attempt was down only a tick (from 8.5 to 8.4).

For perspective, realize that Kaaya’s numbers compare favorably to the last great 'Canes quarterback, Ken Dorsey (2000-02) who led Miami to a national title. Dorsey, as a sophomore, completed 58.4 percent of his passes. In his three years as the starter, he never completed more than 59 percent, and his average per attempt was 8.3 for his career. 

Part of what made Dorsey great was his low turnover rate – just 26 interceptions in three full years as a starter. Kaaya, though, is showing the potential to duplicate or exceed Dorsey’s individual numbers but not – obviously – the team achievements that are dependent on the supporting cast.

COUGFANcom: Who are three Miami players – one offense, one defense, one special teams -- Cougar fans unfamiliar with the Hurricanes should keep an eye on?

Villa: On offense, a player who has so far traveled under the radar is tight end David Njoku. He has caught just 20 passes, which ranks fifth on the team. So what is so special about Njoku? His average per catch of 18.1 leads the team. He is just a redshirt freshman and started the year on the bench before getting a chance to play.

Njoku is 6-4, 245 yet he won a national championship in the high jump in high school, clearing 6 feet, 11 inches. Miami has a great tradition of tight ends in the NFL – Jeremy Shockey, Greg Olsen, Bubba Franks, Kellen Winslow Jr., Alfredo Roberts, Clive Walford, just to name a few. Njoku could join them in a couple of years.

On defense, Artie Burns is the prototype of what NFL scouts are looking for in a cornerback. He is long, fast and skilled. He is listed at 6-0 and 197 pounds but plays taller. He was the nation’s top hurdler coming out of high school and has continued to run track at Miami. And he leads the ACC with six interceptions this season despite missing one game to mourn the death of his mother.

You can expect Burns, a junior, to turn pro after the Sun Bowl, and that’s especially true if he has a strong performance against the Cougars’ high-powered passing game.

With dynamic kick returners and speed everywhere, Miami’s special teams were once the most feared unit in the nation – at least on par with Virginia Tech in its glory days. That’s no longer the case at Miami – where have you gone Devin Hester? Or Santana Moss? Or Kevin Williams?

The easy call as the player to watch on special teams is not an athlete per se – it’s the kicker, Mike Badgley, a sophomore. Badgley made 25 of 30 field goals this season, and two of his misses were from more than 50 yards.  He also made a 57-yarder this season, tying the school record. He made a 56-yarder as a freshman.

COUGFANcom: Give us your thumbnail sketch of the Miami defense.

Villa: There is individual talent on the Miami defense – players such as cornerback Artie Burns and Corn Elder, safeties Deon Bush and Rayshawn Jenkins and edge pass-rushers Trent Harris, Chad Thomas and Al-Quadin Muhammad (team-high five sacks).

The linebackers were hit hard by injuries, but two players from the unit have emerged – leading tackler Jermaine Grace, who is small but fast on the perimeter, and middle man Juwon Young.

But overall, despite flashes, the Canes’ defense allowed an average of 28.8 points this season, ranking 12th out of 14 teams in the ACC. That’s just plain awful for a once-proud defensive program. Miami gave up 5.4 yards per rush – the worst mark in the ACC. And Miami allowed passers to complete 60.7 percent of their passes, which ranks 11th in the league.

COUGFANcom: And the ‘quick view’ on the Hurricanes’ offense?

Villa: The Canes have a standout young quarterback in Kaaya, who is third in the ACC in passing yards and has done a brilliant job of spreading the ball around. Receivers Rashawn Scott (47 catches), Stacy Coley (44 catches) and Herb Waters (38 catches) lead a balanced aerial attack. Njoku has blossomed in the second half of the season as a big-play target at tight end.

Sophomore Joseph Yearby – who comes from the same high school as Florida State star Dalvin Cook – leads the ground game with 939 yards, six touchdowns and a 4.9 average. But freshman RB Mark Walton (eight TDs) is also a playmaker as a runner and as a receiver (19 catches).

COUGFANcom: Miami has only allowed 29 third-quarter points all year, what do you attribute that to?

I don’t put much stock into that. It’s not like anybody is thinking this coaching staff is making great adjustments at halftime. Golden was fired at midseason, and that tells you all you need to know about the job the staff did in general.

Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow on CF.C …

About the Author: Villa covers the Hurricanes for Lakeland (Fla.) Ledger. He filed weekly reports with during Peyton Bender's senior season in Fort Lauderdale in 2013.  Based in Miami, Villa is a free-lance writer who has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times,, Baseball America, Sports and many more. He also served as an assistant sports editor at The Miami Herald for 15 years.

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