When Georgia fired Mark Richt, there was nowhere for Richt to go but down. Georgia is one of the best college football jobs in America, leaving the 56-year-old Richt at a crossroads. After 15 years as the Bulldogs' head coach and 11 years as a top assistant at Florida State, his future in coaching was uncertain.
There was one thing he knew he wanted his next job to be, though.
"If and when I do coach again, I'm looking forward to coaching again in terms of being more hands-on," Richt said on Nov. 30, after being fired by Georgia. "I miss coaching quarterbacks, I miss calling plays, I miss that part of it. Whether it's in the role of head coach, coordinator, quarterbacks coach, whatever it is, if in fact I choose to do that, I'd be really excited about coaching QBs again and getting in the middle of the offensive strategy."
Just a few days later, Richt attained just about the ideal scenario, given the circumstances: He took the job at Miami, his alma mater, where in addition to trying to resurrect a storied but downtrodden program, in his first year he'll be charged with guiding quarterback Brad Kaaya toward a massive NFL payday next spring.
While Richt has a purported first-round talent at quarterback for his first season at Miami, 2016 is unlikely to make any kind of statement about the future of The U under his leadership. It is Year 1, and while Richt will be dealing with a fickle fan base that abhors mediocrity, Miami is expected to be a top-40 team, rather than finally winning an ACC title for the first time right away. The gap between Florida State and Clemson and the Hurricanes is far too large to close in one season.
The goal this fall is for Miami to show signs of progress, ideally to top last year's 8-5 record and, most importantly, avoid embarrassments like the 58-0 loss to Clemson that got Al Golden fired.
Richt's future at Miami will be defined by other quarterbacks, but the growth of The U starts with following through on Kaaya's promise as Miami attempts to produce a first-round quarterback for the first time since Vinny Testaverde in 1987. Surprisingly, the Hurricanes haven't had a QB picked higher than the seventh round since Craig Erickson in 1991. That's not a total indictment of QBs at Miami, given that Ken Dorsey was a college star and Gino Torretta won the Heisman, but the Canes have had middling results at the position since Dorsey's last season in 2002.
While Richt begins laying the groundwork for Miami to escape the aimlessness of the last decade-plus since joining the ACC, he gets to return to the nuts-and-bolts of coaching with one of the most coveted quarterbacks in college football. Running backs coach Thomas Brown is Richt's new offensive coordinator, but Richt will be calling the plays, in addition to working with his son, Jon Richt, in coaching the Hurricanes' quarterbacks.
Richt won't get the chance to tutor his prized recruit at Georgia, freshman Jacob Eason, but instead he'll inherit Kaaya, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior who was a four-star recruit in 2014 and has started 25 games since arriving at Miami. Kaaya is excited about his third year, but given the possible weakness in the 2017 draft quarterback class, it already seems unlikely that he'll be signing up for a fourth college season.
Just signed and renewed my scholarship papers again. Another year of free education, appreciate it! @univmiami- Brad Kaaya (@BradleyKaaya) May 17, 2016
When the 2016 NFL draft ended, attention immediately shifted toward the 2017 draft class, which is light on elite college quarterbacks beyond Clemson's Deshaun Watson. Others like Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes and Ole Miss' Chad Kelly could be in the mix, but the very early consensus has Kaaya right alongside Watson as the top quarterbacks. SI.com put Kaaya No. 1, SB Nation has him going No. 2, ESPN's Todd McShay has him going No. 2, ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. has him No. 13 on his big board and CBS Sports has him going No. 14 in one mock draft and No. 23 in another.
It may seem a little bit surprising, given Kaaya's status as a third-team All-ACC quarterback last season, at the helm of back-to-back mediocre Miami teams. In his career, he has completed 59.8 percent for 6,436 yards with 42 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. As a sophomore, he threw 16 TDs and five picks, ranking 23rd in yards per attempt and 35th in passer rating. They're solid, modest numbers that are hardly attention-grabbing.
As always, all 12-month-early mock drafts should be taken with a grain of salt, too. At this time last year, Christian Hackenberg, Cardale Jones and Connor Cook were projected as first-round picks; a year later, only Hackenberg, a second-rounder, went by the end of Day 2. In recent years, similar situations have happened with Bryce Petty and Brett Hundley, who both ended up being mid-round picks. A couple quarterbacks will inevitably rise toward the top of draft boards -- hello, Carson Wentz -- but it's hard to know this far in advance which quarterbacks are capable of making that leap.
It will be the job of Richt and his son to propel Kaaya to those heights. As head coach at Georgia (2001-15) and quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Florida State (1990-2000), Richt coached eight drafted quarterbacks. No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford is the only one to go in the first round, while Chris Weinke won the Heisman Trophy and Aaron Murray, who like Kaaya started as freshman (albeit as a redshirt), finished his career as the SEC's all-time leading passer.
Kaaya's status as a junior with possibly only one year remaining makes him a placeholder for Richt who won't define where the Richt era is actually heading, but he's a great placeholder, nonetheless, one who gives Richt a building block for some instant success, a quarterback who makes the Canes worth watching this fall, even if they're a second-tier ACC team. Despite dealing with mediocre offensive line play, Kaaya has flashed plenty of signs of pro potential in earning valuable experience as a starter since his first game on the roster.
In March, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said that the ACC has three legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates, including Kaaya with the obvious picks of Watson and Seminoles tailback Dalvin Cook.
Kaaya is a tall pocket passer with the arm strength to fit passes into tight windows. He's poised under pressure, keeping his eyes downfield and showing the ability to stand tall and deliver strikes with pressure around him. He sees the field well and has thrown only 12 interceptions in his last 19 games.
There are undoubtedly things for Kaaya to improve. He's never going to be a runner, and while he has a clean over-the-top delivery, his lower-body mechanics can be inconsistent, with his upper body and lower body not always in sync when he throws. Relatedly, some of his passes will sail over the head of the receiver or be thrown behind them.
Kaaya's flaws are workable, though, and while his numbers were similar, tangible progress was made from his freshman to sophomore seasons. Now, he'll be teamed with Richt, as Richt attempts to get back to what he likes about coaching and Kaaya attempts to take the next step to leave Miami in a better place as a team while boosting his individual credentials that could make him a first-round pick next spring.
The 2017 NFL draft is still a long way away, and Kaaya still has two years of eligibility left if he wants them. This fall, he gets his entire offensive line back, although the unit desperately needs to take a step forward, and while Herb Waters and Rashawn Scott are gone, he has solid options at receiver, led by Stacy Coley and tight end David Njoku. The middle of Miami's schedule is tough -- Florida State, North Carolina, at Virginia Tech, at Notre Dame in October -- but Miami is well-positioned to take at least a small step forward in Richt's first season.
Richt did not recruit Kaaya, and he did not coach him in Kaaya's first two college seasons. Still, he will have a big hand in whether Kaaya gets Miami back into the spotlight of the NFL draft, which it frequently dominated in its glory days.
The development of Eason at Georgia is out of Richt's hands, but by inheriting a quarterback who could be guided toward the first round of the draft and thus serve as an excellent recruiting tool for Miami, and by committing to a hands-on approach, Richt has found his ideal next challenge as he attempts to restore the prestige of his alma mater.