Why you should care
Because right now, the best QBs in the league are made in the Kaaya mold.
Even as a skinny high school sophomore, Brad Kaaya made quite the impression: After a football strategy session, Kaaya approached his new coach, Ed Croson, with oddly sophisticated questions. Then he showed Croson his notebook — it was filled with pages upon pages of meticulous notes on the game. “‘I don’t know if this kid can play, but I’ll hire him as a coach right now,’” Croson says he remembers thinking.
The coaching will have to wait. Kaaya is now a 6-foot-4, 215-pound elite quarterback for the 10th-ranked University of Miami, and while you might not be hearing his name all that much in October, you’ll be hearing it plenty come April, when NFL teams cull through the college ranks in the hope of drafting the next star quarterback. Indeed, some observers see in Kaaya a 2017 version of Carson Wentz, the Philadelphia Eagles’ phenom rookie QB. Both are cerebral men — obsessed with detail, hugely efficient. Then there’s his powerful arm: Kaaya is “throwing some dimes downfield,” said Charlie Campbell, senior draft analyst for WalterFootball.com, who currently projects Kaaya as the third pick in the 2017 draft. Perhaps, he says, Kaaya is most like Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan. “Kaaya isn’t a runner, but they both have big arms and the size to be pocket passers.”
WHAT A CATCH!— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) September 17, 2016
Brad Kaaya with the dime to Braxton Berrios! Miami is up 21-0 on App State early in the 2nd quarter. pic.twitter.com/0WDrf2kpPt
To be sure, Kaaya’s stats might seem pedestrian — only eight passing touchdowns through four games, with an average passing yardage that ranks him 48th in the country — and no one expects him to win a Heisman … yet. But that’s because the QB is a strategist and winner — 4-0 this season — not a stat monger. Leading into this Saturday’s prime-time matchup against in-state rival Florida State, Kaaya has been more than happy to sacrifice wowing NFL scouts to the larger team effort, often handing the ball off to one of the nation’s top rushing attacks. Like Wentz, Kaaya has impressed with his efficiency; even factoring one dud of a game when he threw two interceptions against Florida Atlantic, he’s 12th in the nation in passing efficiency.
“I don’t think many are suited to play quarterback,” Kaaya tells OZY. “You have to have a different mental makeup. For me, it’s always been being able to diagnose things at a very early age. A coach gave us our first playbook when we were 7 years old. It was 15 or 20 plays. We came back the very next week, and I knew the whole thing front and back. It’s almost like a photographic memory.”
Pocket passing is once again the name of the NFL game these days — a reversal from just a few years ago, when the dual-threat quarterback was all the rage and college stars such as Robert Griffin III and Marcus Mariota were the future of the NFL. They were guys who played in a spread offense and were as comfortable running the option as throwing downfield. But that trend hasn’t worked out so well, not least for the players: Griffin’s body has fallen apart like a papier-mâché doll. Mariota has been converted into a typical under-center pocket passer, averaging three rushing attempts per game in his NFL career. Colin Kaepernick has become a backup to Blaine Gabbert (!). Even Cam Newton, the NFL’s reigning MVP, has seen the dark side of being a mobile quarterback, with a concussion last weekend that sidelined him.
And so the league swings back toward the quarterback prototype that’s been the NFL model for decades: the tall, sturdy, quick-thinking pocket passer who completes a high percentage of his passes and rarely makes game-altering mistakes. In other words, Brad Kaaya.
Kaaya grew up in Los Angeles an acolyte of USC football, and always dreamed of following the footsteps of his quarterbacking model, USC’s future Pro Bowler Carson Palmer. But Kaaya didn’t blossom until late in his high school career, and USC didn’t show interest. Neither did Kaaya’s other dream school, Stanford. And so when Miami — a rigorous private school that appealed to Kaaya’s academic side — offered, he was thrilled to accept.
His ascent to NFL quarterback prospect is no surprise to his mother, the actress Angela Means, best known for her role as Felicia in the 1995 stoner comedy Friday. (Say it all together now: “Bye, Felicia!”) The two would watch football together every weekend, analyzing the quarterbacks’ decision-making. She knew he was an athlete since he was a toddler, walking around the house with a ball in his hand. His arm strength and accuracy was obvious to anyone who saw him throw a football. So she worked on his mental makeup so he’d be prepared for big moments — the ultimate intangible skill of a quarterback. The most important thing is to be mentally present, she says, which she learned from doing stand-up comedy. “When I saw [Brad] playing football, that he was in the moment, I was so proud.”
To be sure, there’s always what Malcolm Gladwell calls “the quarterback problem” — you can’t really tell if a great college quarterback will become a great NFL quarterback until that quarterback actually plays in the NFL. It explains why the NFL is so obsessed with things like the Wonderlic test and with probing a prospect’s psyche. It’s why JaMarcus Russell had one of the best combines in NFL history then became one of the biggest busts in NFL history, and why the undersized Russell Wilson had 74 players taken ahead of him in the 2012 draft — then went on to become one of the biggest stars in the NFL.
It also may explain why Kaaya, a talented college quarterback with middling stats on a winning program, could have an NFL future that’s even brighter than his college present. From the moment Croson met Kaaya, his high school coach knew he had the mind of a football coach. Turns out he can play too. But what the NFL wants to know — how well can he play in the biggest of moments, like this weekend against Florida State? — is a much more interesting, and difficult, question.