When Brad Kaaya was a senior at West Hills (Calif.) Chaminade High, he recalled playing with seven future Division I players on the offensive side of the ball. The defense? A lot different.
“We had a couple guys go for 1,000-yard receiving, 2,000-yard rushers,” Kaaya recalled. “Our defense was fairly inexperienced, but they got it together by week three or four. We just rolled from there.”
They won a state title, in fact. So, what Miami has this year — experienced offense, inexperienced defense — can work.
“It can be done,” Kaaya said, cheerfully. “At the high school level. We’ll see.”
Kaaya said Miami’s defense, which saw veterans Al-Quadin Muhammad and Jermaine Grace dismissed on Saturday, has “kept the same edge. There’s not much of a fall-off.
“Of course, it’s tough. Quan and Jermaine, those guys are good friends of mine. Quan’s been one of my best friends since I first got here. Me and him have been through a lot together. It’s tough to see him go. At the same time, we have to step up and rally. … They’ll be missed, but I think we have guys that can step up.”
Two fellow juniors — wide receiver Braxton Berrios and left guard Kc McDermott — used the same phrase to describe the situation: “It sucks.”
“We all really try to do the right thing, we try to watch our every move because we understand we are under a microscope and we understand that those types of things can happen, and honestly it just sucks when they do happen,” Berrios said. “We can’t do anything about it now, all we can do is rally around each other and move forward.”
“It sucks and we miss those guys,” offensive lineman Kc McDermott said. “But we live by the standard that was set by this team. We love it. We will make sure we keep everyone at that standard.”
Does it make him mad?
“It’s upsetting,” he said, “but our mindset is, ‘Great, who’s up next?’ No one’s going to hold us back from being successful.”
Replacing Muhammad at “Viper” defensive end will be junior Trent Harris, with freshman Joe Jackson backing him up. Freshman Pat Bethel could also get in the mix opposite Chad Thomas and his backup, Demetrius Jackson.
“Great athletes, and they’re definitely mentally prepared,” McDermott said. “That’s one thing our coaching staff has done — regardless if you’re ‘1,’ ‘2,’ or ‘3,’ you’re mentally prepared. You know your job. They’re great athletes, and I have no doubt in their capability to step up.”
Grace’s replacement at strong-side linebacker is freshman Zach McCloud, though Miami may play more nickel (five defensive backs) given their sudden inexperience at linebacker. The top four linebackers on the Miami depth chart have never played a game. Backups Charles Perry and Mike Smith have not seen significant action in their 15 combined games. The only upperclassman is junior Darrion Owens, but he is still recovering from a serious knee injury.
That matters not to Berrios, who said he has “all the faith in the world” in Miami’s defensive coaches to figure it out.
“They’re going to be fine,” Berrios said. “They’ve adjusted before and they’ll adjust again. … It’s a blow, obviously. You can’t say it’s [not]. It’s something we have to deal with, and they’ll find us the best route to all the wins we need.”
The Hurricanes went 6-7 when Kaaya, Berrios and McDermott were freshmen. They went 8-5 in a tumultuous 2015, and were hoping to put all that behind them as the Mark Richt era begins. After playing through tail-end of NCAA probation, suffering disappointing losses and seeing an overhaul of the coaching staff, Kaaya said dealing with suspensions wasn’t going to bring them down.
“This team’s been through so much already,” he said. “At this point, there’s not much that can break us, that we haven’t already seen.”
It’s anything but a tough time for him. He’s about to make his 26th career start Saturday against Florida A&M (6 p.m., ESPN3.com), but Kaaya still feels the same as he did when he was a little kid waiting for the first game of the season.
“This first week, it’s always kind of hard to sleep at night. I kept waking up, kept dreaming about Saturday,” Kaaya said. “That new feeling, it’s always there every year.”
He was excited to take the tour of Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, but he wasn’t starry-eyed. He was looking for the play clock, any possible blind spots, where the lights might shine in their faces.
“It’s something we’ve all been looking forward to since last December,” he said. “I’m eager to get after it with this team and see what we can put on film.”
The mission? That’s the wrong word, Kaaya said.
“The plan is to win every single game,” he said.