True freshmen making immediate impact for Hurricanes

(From left) Braxton Berrios, Brad Kaaya and Joe Yearby are three true freshmen seeing significant time for the Miami Hurricanes this season.

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — University of Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya made his checks and scanned the defense before finding an open target, running back Joe Yearby, 47 yards downfield for a touchdown.

A true freshman-to-true freshman connection provided cushion in the fourth quarter of Saturday night’s 22-10 victory over the Duke Blue Devils.

This is how University of Miami head coach Al Golden and his staff envisioned players from this past National Signing Day contributing early in their collegiate careers.

"Obviously I think our recruiting was good last year. I do," Golden said. "We’re playing a lot of guys, and I think we talked about it in here back in August — that if a lot of freshmen end up playing it’s because they’re good and because they have a chance to make us better. And I think those guys are going to make us better."

Eighteen guys from the 2014 recruiting class have played at least a snap through the season’s first five games. A handful — Kaaya, Yearby, wide receiver Braxton Berrios, offensive lineman Kc McDermott and linebacker Darrion Owens — have seen significant time.

Yearby, who admitted he rarely caught passes out of the backfield in high school, recorded his first collegiate score on that play through the air. He became one of three UM backs, joining Mike James and Duke Johnson, over the past 15 years to catch a touchdown of 40-plus yards.

What helped prepare him for college football was going through the progressions, lifting weights and watching more film. He built a strong bond with his teammates by making a pact prior to setting foot on campus.

"Before we even got to Miami, way before our 12th grade year of high school, we saw each other and said, ‘We’ve got to stick together and when we go to Miami we’ve got to build a program with each other,’" Yearby said.

They weren’t in it alone. The upperclassmen do their part to usher the newcomers forward in their transition — from helping them to understand the playbook to offering words of encouragement.

All-ACC senior linebacker Denzel Perryman learned from Sean Spence in 2011. During camp this summer, Perryman answered Juwon Young’s questions at lunch or on the field. All-ACC junior running back Duke Johnson taught Yearby to "just be humble and be patient. Everything comes to those who wait."

Hurricanes notes

Four years ago, senior wideout Phillip Dorsett went through the same experience of playing meaningful Atlantic Coast Conference games barely removed from high school.

"My freshman year I was thrown in the fire first game," Dorsett said. "I had to learn a lot, and I actually played in hostile territory in Maryland, Monday night Labor Day. It happened real fast. I was starting on punt return, so playing as a freshman and playing in these environments so when you get to your sophomore, junior, senior year it’s going to be nothing. It’s going to be just like practice."

Offensive coordinator James Coley believes there are several factors that explain why players like Kaaya and Yearby can come in and immediately make an impact.

The first? The high-school programs they attended. Kaaya led Chaminade College Prep to a Division II title in California. Yearby and defensive lineman Chad Thomas were two-time state champs at Miami Central and Miami Booker T. Washington, respectively.

A program’s culture is paramount to developing positive habits and establishing a strong work ethic. South Florida, in particular, is a hotbed for Division I talent.

"That’s why we recruit those programs," Golden said. "Obviously if you can get winners and leaders that’s a big deal. If you can recruit leaders and winners and have that in your locker room that makes a difference. Certainly Brad is. Braxton is. I think Darrion Owens. Chad Thomas — there’s no question he is. (Marques) Gayot. Guys like that. Winners and leaders — that’s important, but I don’t think there’s any question a lot of those guys come from good programs.

"Each instance is different. I just think a lot of those guys are competitors, they want to play, they want to make a difference. And guys like Joe and Brad and Braxton like you mentioned on that side and Darrion Owens, AJ Moten, all those guys have continued to improve. We’ve got to get all the other guys to improve as well and keep pushing forward."

The next attribution? Ownership by the players.

When Berrios first spoke to the media, he mentioned how some freshmen slip through the cracks by getting into trouble their first time away from home. The Under Armour All-American knew that wouldn’t happen to him because he always wanted to be a Hurricane. Plus, his older brother was already in college, so he had an idea of what to expect.

"They come in and they’re not like a regular freshman who’s enjoying the college experience," Coley said. "They came in here and worked from Day 1. They sacrificed, they put in the extra time. They had no summer break. And it’s paying off for them."

That kind of maturity level from 18- and 19-year-old boys doesn’t come around often.

When Kaaya’s mother, Angela, spoke to Keith Olbermann last week she mentioned how her son took piano lessons as well as ballet as a child.

During the quarterback battle between Kaaya and 23-year-old transfer Jake Heaps, teammates and coaches alike described the former as mature beyond his years. It’s no coincidence considering his early childhood development.

"Some people say I’m advanced for my age," Kaaya said. "I just take it day-by-day and soak in anything I can absorb. Be a sponge. Since May up to this point week-to-week all just in one moment. … I don’t really remember every day of my childhood. My mom definitely had me doing a lot of different things, a wide variety of things. Not just have me watch cartoons all day. It probably helped me a lot (to) develop into who I am today not just as a player, but as a person and an intellectual."

As Yearby and Berrios continue to produce, their opportunities will increase as a result. In turn, those games will serve as lessons in experience. Yearby didn’t expect the amount of reps he has gotten — "just try to help the team out any way I could."

Thirteen of the 19 Miami touchdowns have come via a true freshman. Kaaya ranks second in the ACC in both yards (1,275) and scores (12). Yearby is second on the team with 188 yards on 33 rushes. Berrios is tied for second in catches (15) with junior Herb Waters. His receptions have gone for 156 yards and two scores. Defensively, Owens recorded a team-high seven tackles in the loss at Nebraska. He has 12 on the year in four games. Linemen Courtel Jenkins and Trent Harris have 10 and nine, respectively.

This youth trend isn’t just something developing in South Florida.

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson took over starting duties from senior Cole Stoudt. He threw for a program record six touchdowns in a win over North Carolina this past weekend. Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd leads the Volunteers with 328 yards and two scores despite no starts. LSU’s Brandon Harris may soon take over at quarterback after compiling five total touchdowns against New Mexico State on Saturday.

"I think just around the country the culture of college football is changing and high school football is changing as well," Kaaya said. "Schemes are becoming more advanced, coaches are taking new approaches to training. You can see true freshmen playing all around the country. That’s not just from my school. You see true freshmen all over the place getting significant playing time."

You can follow Christina De Nicola on Twitter @CDeNicola13 or email her at cdenicola13@gmail.com.