CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) -Without hesitation, Miami quarterback Kirby Freeman calls this the toughest season of his life.
``For so many reasons,'' he said. ``More than most people could understand.''
He won the starting job in training camp, only to lose it by halftime of Week 2 at Oklahoma. The numbers tell the story; Freeman was 12-of-30 for 98 yards with one touchdown and one interception in his two starts.
So it was back to the bench, where Freeman has spent most of his time since coming to Miami.
But this year, that's not the biggest problem for the junior from Brownwood, Texas.
He's going through some personal anguish as well, the kind that makes incompletions look insignificant.
``There's so much more in this life than football and starting or not starting or getting benched and how to deal with it,'' Freeman said. ``So much more.''
That's a lesson he learned the hard way.
Within a two-week span this summer, Freeman had an aunt and uncle die from heart attacks. Both were about 40, and Freeman flew home each time for the funeral. Those losses still haunt him, to the point where he often wakes up in a cold sweat, his mind racing, in the middle of the night and has to call his father for a 3 a.m. calming chat.
And getting benched - again - certainly didn't help his mind-set any, either.
``If this is the hardest thing I'll ever go through in my life and I never see a football field again, I'll be happy,'' said Freeman, who got engaged last year and hopes to be Miami's starter again in 2008. ``Even though parts of this year have been devastating and what-not, I know there's more that's out there to focus on.''
Make no mistake, though.
Freeman still loves the game.
Depending on how Kyle Wright's sprained left ankle and left knee tendon heal in the next couple days, Freeman could be Miami's starter again Saturday when the Hurricanes (5-3, 2-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) host North Carolina State (3-5, 1-3).
Wright was able to participate in most of practice Wednesday, but hardly sounded confident that he'd be ready in time for the weekend.
``If I keep making strides the way I have the past two days, anything can happen,'' Wright said.
Still, that uncertainty puts Freeman in the spotlight once again, and the Hurricanes are comfortable with that.
``You know, Kirby's won two games for us this year,'' Miami coach Randy Shannon said. ``It's good that we have both of those guys, because you never know when you're going to need someone.''
There have been times where Freeman has definitely been needed.
Freeman made some key plays while Wright was being stitched up after suffering a cut mouth against Duke, a game that Miami won.
And Freeman - who struggled for two quarters after coming in when Wright got hurt late in the first half at Florida State - put together a winning drive in the final moments as the Hurricanes stunned the Seminoles two weeks ago. He was 1-for-8 before the final drive, 3-for-3 with a touchdown on that march.
``That was huge,'' Wright said. ``For him to stay in it, despite having a rough game until that final drive ... it was definitely a team effort, but I was happy to see him come in and succeed.''
Freeman prepares each week to be Miami's starter, and this week - obviously - is no different. He took over as the first-stringer late last year when Wright suffered a broken thumb, and wound up leading the Hurricanes to a win in the MPC Computers Bowl, taking MVP honors in that game.
If he starts Saturday, it would likely be just a short-term deal. At this point, Freeman isn't even thinking about playing time in those terms. He just wants to turn this year around, for a whole lot of reasons.
``I want to be part of something that this team can be remembered by,'' Freeman said. ``Even after all that's happened, this could still be an awesome year for us.''

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