From saga to first step: After debut against former team, Vernon Adams can move on
EUGENE, Ore.—Vernon Adams Sr. stepped on the bench in front of him to get a better view. As Oregon redshirt sophomore running back Kani Benoit scampered eight yards into the end zone less than two minutes into the first quarter, Adams Sr. closed his eyes, tilted his head back and raised his arms to the sky. “Touchdown, Ducks!" boomed over the loudspeakers as, from the field, Oregon's new quarterback turned to the crowd and fit his hands together to form an O. In the stands, the father of that quarterback blinked back tears.
“It's just," Adams Sr. said, shaking his head and taking a breath to compose himself, “it's just so amazing. He's so blessed. We're so blessed. I've always wanted this dream for him."
In section 10, row 12, seat 3 of Autzen Stadium Saturday evening, a dad watched that dream materialize along with 58,127 others in attendance. He wore a yellow polo and a green hat, both emblazoned with the Ducks' O and that famous swoosh. “Nike stuff isn't cheap!" he cried, a reference to Eastern Washington, his son's former team, being Adidas-sponsored. But Adams Sr. would have paid anything for the appropriate gear, because this moment was worth so much more.
For years, people told Vernon Adams Jr. he wasn't enough—wasn't tall enough, wasn't fast enough, wasn't good enough—to hang with the big boys of college football. When just two scholarship offers arrived at his door (one from Eastern Washington and one from Portland State) after he passed for 5,234 yards, ran for 1,263 more and accounted for 68 total touchdowns during his two years as the starter at Bishop Alemany High in Mission Hills, Calif., it was Vernon Sr. who told his son he could go elsewhere and show everyone what they were missing.
Turns out, it isn't just mom who knows best.
In Oregon's 61–42 win on Saturday, Adams threw for 246 yards and two touchdowns, ran for another 94 yards and absorbed the blow from one ugly targeting hit that forced him to the sideline and up the tunnel to the locker room for a concussion evaluation. Sophomore running back Royce Freeman, who rushed for 180 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries, had a simple take on the new quarterback's play: “He's a baller, point-blank, period." After Ducks coach Mark Helfrich implied in his postgame press conference that Adams did not have a concussion—and declined to say whether the targeting hit that got Eagles redshirt sophomore linebacker John Kreifels ejected was a cheap shot—Adams addressed the media for the first time since joining Oregon on Aug. 13.
“I'm so thankful I got this opportunity," he said. “Throughout all of fall camp, I didn't know how I was going to feel [playing against Eastern Washington]. When I came out for pregame, it was emotional, seeing my friends but it was also really fun.
“[Running] out there, my heart was beating, it was crazy. But it was real life."
It's only fitting that one of the biggest spectacles of the 2015 off-season would end with a mini-controversy. Since Feb. 9, when Adams announced that he would take advantage of the NCAA graduate transfer rule and leave the Eagles for the Ducks, his move ballooned from storyline to saga. Reporters peppered everyone involved with questions. They asked Adams for details on the most famous math test in college football history, and asked Helfrich what it would take for a new guy to replace Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. They asked coaches and players at Eastern Washington how they felt about facing their program's former superstar in both teams' opening game.
And then, in a postgame session on Saturday, reporters asked Adams if he would play at Michigan State next week (he said yes, and reiterated his availability after practice on Monday), and if he thought Kreifels's hit was a cheap shot. (Adams wasn't sure, but said he trusts that Eagles coach Beau Baldwin would never condone such a thing.)
In the run-up to Saturday's game, FCS powerhouse Eastern Washington (which Adams credits with turning him into an FBS-level quarterback) had been, at times, unfairly painted as the bad guy. After Adams announced last February that he was going to try to play at college football's highest level, Baldwin had barred him from the Eagles' workout facilities. Outsiders roasted Baldwin for what was a completely reasonable decision—would anyone expect Brian Kelly to allow quarterback Everett Golson to continue working out with Notre Dame after announcing he would transfer in 2015?—but forgot to mention how close Baldwin and Adams still are. Adams understood his former coach's decision. The two have stayed in touch over the last seven months, with Baldwin checking in on Adams's graduation track and asking for advice when his 10-year-old daughter, Mia, broke the same bone in her foot that sidelined Adams for four games last fall.
Baldwin went looking for Adams on the field immediately after the game, wrapped him in a hug and assured him that the targeting hit was not his directive. He referred to Kreifels's penalty as a “knucklehead moment"; Kreifels taunted the crowd on his way off the field, and was met by a furious Baldwin, who lit into him on the sideline. Later Baldwin told reporters that Kreifels has “a history with anyone on offense," and agreed that “he should've been kicked out, but he needs to go out humbly and learn from it, not act like that. He got my message." Baldwin says that he will spend the rest of the season checking in on Adams and “rooting like crazy" for one of the best quarterbacks in Eastern Washington history, someone he describes as “a kid I love very much."
Earlier in the week Eagles redshirt junior receiver Cooper Kupp—one of Adams's favorite targets over the last three years, who set two Autzen Stadium records on Saturday with 15 receptions for 246 yards and three touchdowns—told Campus Rush that he thought everyone was getting too wrapped up in the idea of Adams playing against his former team. “Before all this, he was a good friend, then a teammate," said Kupp, who got married this summer with Adams as a groomsman. “Of course you aren't friends with everyone on the team, no one is, and this has been a weird situation. I got sick to my stomach seeing the way people were being attacked by the media in this whole thing. But he's still my friend, and we talk all the time. It's been a bizarre situation, but he made a decision and we've all moved on."
Now, will everyone else do the same? Adams's choice to transfer from FCS up to FBS made waves across college football; Montana State coach Rob Ash criticized the move, telling the Associated Press, “Our [FCS] guys need to start and finish at the same school. We cannot be perceived as a farm system." But Baldwin and Eastern Washington quarterbacks coach Zak Hill both say that they aren't worried about FBS programs continually plucking top players from FCS schools, or recruits assuming that it's an option. Baldwin points out how unique the transfer of Adams was, and says that often, it is beneficial to all involved when a player leaves one program to join another. The coach doesn't anticipate needing a playbook on how to address this issue in the future. Kupp hopes there are other ripple effects. Though Adams is clearly a special player with a rare gift, Kupp thinks his play could garner more respect for the FCS as a whole.
“A lot of people don't understand the dynamic of FCS football," Kupp says. “They put FBS so far above it. But players don't come to Eastern so they can move up, move down, whatever. Players come here to win championships."
And now, they'll try to do just that. Even without Adams the Eagles are loaded and should make another deep postseason run behind his replacement, redshirt junior quarterback Jordan West, who completed 23 of 34 passes for 293 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception, on Saturday. Oregon, meanwhile, is off to East Lansing, Mich., for one of the marquee nonconference matchups of the 2015 regular season—and a rematch of last year's 46–27 Ducks victory in Eugene. Adams Sr. will be there, too, eager to watch his boy.
After hugging virtually every former teammate, Adams jogged to the sideline and greeted the newest group of Ducks fans: his family. Besides his father, Adams's mother, three siblings (younger sister Haleigh, a high school junior, was wearing a leg brace as she recovers from ACL surgery), grandfather, grandmother, great-grandfather and great-grandmother, made the trip to watch his debut. Also on hand was Adams's ex-girlfriend and their one-year-old son, Vernon Kash Adams III. During the first quarter, the littlest Adams wiggled his arms as mommy yelled, “Go, daddy!" and later became a media darling when photographers crowded around to snap family shots.
For years, it was Adams Sr. who leveled Jr. with postgame critiques, often ignoring the wins and stats and focusing on what his son needed to fix. “We won games when he was little," Adams Sr. says, “and I still made him cry on the ride home I was so hard on him."
But on Saturday the tears belonged only to the elder Adams. After a transfer experience unlike any other, there were no negative reviews from the new Oregon star's oldest coach. One saga down, and a season still to come.