At just over the halfway point in the season, Miami is looking for something, anything to get them rolling. The struggles and downfalls of this team, specifically the defense, have been well documented. Nobody doubts there are some serious issues that need to be addressed, but as I always do, I look to the present and future. Right now, Miami has an interesting opportunity in front of them to get on a little bit of a roll against some very familiar foes. The ‘Canes have extra days of preparation for their next three games against Virginia Tech (bye week), North Carolina (Thursday game this week) and Florida State (bye week). First thing first, however, is this Thursday night in Blacksburg, Virginia against the Hokies. This week, we take a look at a Match-up of two rising stars not only in the ACC but all of college football. Miami Quarterback Brad Kaaya versus Virginia Tech Cornerback Kendall Fuller
Season to Date
As I am sure we all remember, Kaaya was thrown directly into the fire from the get go this season. After winning the starting job in training camp, Kaaya struggled, predictably, in his first collegiate game on the road versus Louisville on a Monday night in September. Since then, however, Kaaya has begun to blossom right in front of our eyes. Kaaya has gotten better every week, not just in the stat column, but in the eye test as well. He seems to have a rhythm with his receivers and a command of the offense just seven games into his young career. Entering last week, Kaaya led the ACC in passing yards and Touchdowns (no, not freshmen, the entire conference. Yes, that included that guy from Florida State). For the season, Kaaya has 1,806 yards passing with 16 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. In Miami's last two wins versus Duke and Cincinnati, Kaaya has not thrown a pick.
Fuller, as a true sophomore, is building off a stellar true freshman season of his own. After earning national recognition last year, Fuller is quietly becoming one of the best defensive backs in the country. While his team has gone through a roller coaster of highs and lows this year (beating Ohio State, losing to ECU) Fuller has been fairly consistent throughout the season, although Pitt's Tyler Boyd did get the better of him last Thursday night. On the season, Fuller has one interception (that he returned for a touchdown) but rarely has an opportunity to make a play on the ball, as teams usually avoid his side of the field.
Both of these players have the frames to be prototypical in size for their positions. Kaaya is a little bit thin for the quarterback position at 208 pounds, but that is not a huge deal for a kid still fresh off his high school prom. At 6'4, he has ideal height to be able to see over the offensive line and read the defense. In the future, he will probably need to pack on some extra pounds to be able to take hits on a consistent basis. But, for now, Kaaya is just fine.
Fuller, on the other hand, looks like her could play in the NFL right now. Many of you may remember his older brother, Kyle, who now gets paid to play football for the Chicago Bears. Kendall is bigger than and arguably just as talented as his elder brother. At 6'1 190, he has the size to stay with bigger receivers without surrendering much in the speed department. This guy is going to be playing on Sundays as soon as he is eligible.
Passing Skills vs Coverage Skills
I wish I could end this segment by simply saying "don't throw to Fuller's side of the field." But that's no fun, so let's take a deeper look.
As I mentioned above, Kaaya has steadily improved every week. While areas like his deep ball and throwing against the blitz have gotten much better, where Kaaya really excels is having poise in the pocket, making his reads, and throwing intermediate routes. Where he can get into trouble sometimes is forcing throws or underthrowing his receivers.
Very simply, if you are going to test Fuller (and again, I would advise against that) you absolutely have no margin for error. He has the ability to stay with his receiver wherever he goes in man coverage and the ball skills to disrupt plays when passes come his way. Throw in the fact that he is bigger than the majority of Miami's receivers (Herb Waters is our only wide out with consistent play that is over 6'1) and that could spell big problems for Miami in the passing game.
Where Kaaya can get the upper hand is confusing Fuller. Kaaya has command of the offense at the line of scrimmage, which is very impressive for a Quarterback so young. His checks at the line and moving his receivers around to more favorable match-ups will be key. Showing Fuller and the Hokies defense one look over and over, then switching that look to a different play could free up a wide out just enough for a big play. Play-action with Phillip Dorsett running towards the end zone, for instance, could be a way to confuse Fuller. A lot of that will fall on Offensive Coordinator James Coley, but it will up to Kaaya to recognize the opportunities and execute.
In all honesty, Fuller is going to win his battle against the guy across from him the majority of the time. He is just too good. And while Miami has plenty of talent at the receiver position, they don't have that one guy on the outside that just always seems to get open and win battles (I'm looking at you, Stacy Coley). While Kaaya may not win his matchup with Fuller every time, he can still win the game by being smart. Running the ball with Duke Johnson should be the first and second option in the game plan. He and Joe Yearby are both averaging over 7 yards per carry. Run them into the ground and set up play action, don't get cute. Using Tight End Clive Walford in the middle of the field can also help soften up the coverage on the outside.
While Fuller is going to win most of the time, he is not going to win EVERY time. Kaaya has to be able to recognize when his guys have gained an advantage, especially when the explosive Dorsett is matched-up with him. Dorsett leads the entire country averaging 34.4 yards per catch. For how talented Fuller is, he doesn't have sprinter speed like Dorsett. Kaaya has to pick his spots and take advantage when he can.
Despite the hornet's nest that Miami is walking into in Blacksburg, I believe this is a very winnable game for the Hurricanes. Coming off an extra few days of preparation and a little bit of momentum, this is the time Miami has to make a run before their game of the year on November 15th (I don't have to tell you who we are playing). The Coastal division is wide open (again), so why not us?
Bonus Match-Up: Robert Nkemdiche versus Leonard Fournette
After the Canes and Hokies face off on Thursday, there is another match-up on Saturday that caught my attention. The last two top high school prospects from the last two recruiting classes face off in what could be a changing of the guard game in the SEC.
You might need a game program to pronounce these guys' names, but there is nothing confusing about their talent level. Nkemdiche is a very unique pass rusher that can play anywhere you put him on the line. He was recruited as a defensive end, but has been playing primarily at tackle this year, which has expanded his game to be able to stop the run. This may seem like high praise, but he reminds me of JJ Watt, with his freakish athletic ability and size. He even plays offense sometimes, like Watt. Nkemdiche has been a huge part of Ole Miss' huge surge to the number 3 team in the country, including a victory over Alabama.
Fournette was touted as one of the best running backs to come out of high school in years this summer. He was highly sought after, with every major school in the country offering him a scholarship. In the end, he chose to attend LSU, and his college career did not get off to the start he imagined. Fourntte got off to a slow start, and so did his team, losing at home to Mississippi State (which looked a lot worse at the time) and getting routed by SEC West rival Auburn. Since then, however, both Fournette and his team have picked up their game. Fournette struggled a bit versus Kentucky this past week, but ran wild versus Florida in the Swamp. LSU won both of those games, but cannot afford another conference loss if it wants to stay in the SEC race. Fournette has drawn comparisons to a young Adrian Peterson, and he will need that kind of effort to make this a successful season for his team.
With the way Ole Miss is rolling and with Fournette's inconsistent play, I think Nkemdiche gets the better of this match-up and I think that eventually leads to Ole Miss continuing this incredible run they are on. LSU is too young, and their young superstar has not been good enough for them to be consistent. There may be a changing of the guard in the SEC this weekend.
What do you think? Is there a more important match-up in either of these games? Follow me on twitter @Josh_Maser and let me know if there is something more important to keep an eye on.