EUGENE, Ore. — Day One of Vernon Adams Watch commenced at the University of Oregon Monday morning as the Ducks opened fall camp, with not even a glimpse of the two-time runner up for the Walter Payton award, the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.
One of the most prolific quarterbacks in college football the last three seasons, Adams announced in February that he was leaving Eastern Washington to take his shot at the big time, using the graduate transfer rule to enroll at Oregon and use his final year of eligibility. Once deemed too small to make it in the Power Five, Adams found himself being pursued by multiple FBS programs—including Texas, UCLA and Oregon—before settling on the Ducks. After losing the national title to Ohio State in January, Oregon lost Heisman winner Marcus Mariota to the NFL and found his replacement 450 miles northeast. Or so coach Mark Helfrich thought.
Adams path to Eugene has been littered with obstacles. Originally planning to be on campus in June to participate in summer workouts—with would have given him an opportunity to build chemistry with a new receiving corps—Adams did not fulfill Eastern’s graduation requirements during the spring academic quarter, which pushed back his arrival date. Adams is in Eugene and taking his final class on campus, but the earliest date he’ll be able to join the team is Thursday, Aug. 13. Head coach Mark Helfrich has sidestepped questions about Adams the last couple months, saying he prefers to talk about people who are currently part of the program.
Adams told SI.com via text message on Monday afternoon that he’s been “studying like crazy” to pass his final class, and has spent the summer working out and throwing with his friends and roommates. He said the Oregon coaches told him he could not work out with his future teammates in any unofficial capacity. Adams hour-long final is Thursday at 12:30 PST. The plan is to take the exam, wait a few minutes to find out if he passed and then, hopefully, race over to the football complex. There’s a chance he passes but does not show up to practice until Friday. Though Oregon doesn’t start fall classes until the end of September, Adams said this is his “last shot.” If he doesn’t pass and can’t join the Ducks, Adams isn’t sure what he’ll do. Returning to Eastern is possible, but it's unlikely the Eagles would take him back.
If and when he suits up, Adams will battle veteran backup Jeff Lockie for the job. A junior from Alamo, Calif., Lockie is described as “a good dude” by Helfrich, and is one of the most respected leaders in the locker room. One of Mariota’s closest friends, Lockie said Monday he heard from the former Oregon standout over the weekend, and Mariota reminded him to “trust what I can do” and worry about “my snaps and my plays,” not anyone else. In two years as a reserve, Lockie has attempted just 41 passes.
Coaches, players and administrators have been peppered with questions about the quarterback situation—receiver Devon Allen says his dad bugs him about it, too—to the point that it’s become a sore topic. Helfrich answers questions in short fashion, and on Monday, running back-turned receiver Byron Marshall said he’s grown sick of the talk. “I’m all about current news,” he said.
Well, there’s some of that, too. News broke early Sunday that Oregon running back Thomas Tyner, who ran for 573 yards and five touchdowns in 2014 as the primary backup, had shoulder surgery Friday and will miss the upcoming season. The Ducks do not talk about injuries, but Helfrich said Monday that Tyner is “not going to be in fall camp,” adding that his availability after August “remains to be seen.” Tyner was hurt last Oct. 18 during a kick return against Washington and dealt with nagging injuries all season before starting in the national title game. Helfrich did not answer a question about why it took so long for Tyner to have surgery. On Monday, Tyner was not even listed on Oregon’s roster.
Before the Tyner news broke, the quarterback battle was intriguing, but manageable: Oregon returns loads of playmakers from last season, including Marshall (74 catches for 1,003 yards and six touchdowns; 52 carries for 392 yards and one touchdown), running back Royce Freeman (team-leading 252 carries for 1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns), receiver Devon Allen (41 catches for 684 yards and seven touchdowns; widely considered one of the fastest players in all of college football) and wide receiver Dwayne Stanford (43 catches for 639 yards and six touchdowns). They’ll also get a boost with the return of explosive receiver Bralon Addison, who missed 2014 with a torn ACL but accounted for 61 receptions for 890 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013. With all those players plus Tyner, the 2015 Oregon quarterback needed to be more of a game manager than game changer. But without Tyner, the need for a playmaker in the mold of Mariota could be more of a necessity.
Marshall, who found out about Tyner’s injury when his phone buzzed Sunday morning with an Oregon football internet notification, said outsiders are taking the wrong view. “There’s no pressure (on anyone),” Marshall said. “Everyone wants to use that word but it’s just football. People get hurt all the time. We had a lot of injuries last year and we made it work.” Marshall and other players expressed confidence in Oregon’s quarterback -- whoever it may be. If it's Adams, Addison said cultivating chemistry on a shortened timeline will be no problem.
Oregon’s ascent to the upper echelon of the college football world has been attributed mostly to its pace of play, which ramped up significantly under former offensive coordinator and head coach Chip Kelly. Quarterbacks (first Dennis Dixon, then Mariota) have been given much of the credit, too. But lost in the conversation occasionally is the play of running backs, which has been superb in Eugene. As Oregon breaks in a new quarterback this season, it made sense to hand the ball off more. Now, with one of those handoff options gone, Marshall might take more snaps at running back, and Freeman might be expected to do even more. Marshall said he was willing to line up wherever needed. Freeman pointed out that as of Monday morning, the Ducks hadn’t even had a positional meeting to talk about how they’ll replace certain guys.
Lockie lamented the loss of Tyner, calling him “one more weapon” in a offense packed with them, but isn’t stressed about the future. “The identity of this offense,” he said, “changes every year.”
Right now, the Ducks are just waiting to find out who will be part of that identity.