CHENEY, Wash.—Vernon Adams Jr. didn’t think it was real the first time a 541 area code popped up on his cellphone. He figured it was too good to be true when Oregon receivers coach Matt Lubick visited his home. Even when he stepped on the Eugene, Ore., campus two weeks ago, he wondered if this was really happening.
His disbelief makes sense: Coming out of Bishop Alemany High in Mission Hills, Calif., in 2011, Adams’s only offers to play college football came from FCS schools Eastern Washington and Portland State. Deemed too small to be a Power Five quarterback, the 5’11”, 170-pounder decided there was no point in trying to walk on a bigger program. “I figured, if they don’t want me, I don’t want them,” Adams said in November. “We’ll play them in the preseason and see what happens.”
Four years after Adams was overlooked, the premier Pac-12 school wanted, and got, him. On Monday he announced he'd play his senior season for the Ducks, taking advantage of the NCAA graduate transfer rule that says a player becomes immediately eligible if he has completed his undergraduate degree. He’ll join a roster loaded with offensive talent, but searching for its next quarterback. Gone is Marcus Mariota, the greatest player in Oregon history and 2014 Heisman Trophy winner. The team has no clear replacement, even with Adams in the mix: He will miss spring ball to finish classes and have only fall camp to earn the starting job. But the player known for his on-field swagger says he intends to lead the Ducks back to the national title game.
An FCS All-America with a rep as a Pac-12 giant killer, Adams is best known for torching Oregon State and Washington in 2013 and ’14, respectively. Against the Beavers he accounted for 518 yards of total offense, a Reser Stadium record, as the Eagles pulled off a 49-46 upset. One year later, at Washington, he threw for a career-high 475 yards with a school-record seven touchdowns against a defense brimming with future NFL talent. Though Eastern lost 59-52 on Sept. 6, Eagles coach Beau Baldwin said the latter performance was more impressive because Adams put up numbers against the Huskies no other Pac-12 school could equal, and with less around him. Former Oregon State coach Mike Riley, now at Nebraska, watched the film of the Washington game and shook his head. “We all made a mistake,” Riley said in November. “How does a kid like that slip through the cracks? I have to admit, after watching what he did to Washington, I felt a little better: It wasn’t just us.”
After the Huskies’ narrow win, linebacker Shaq Thompson, a projected first-round NFL draft pick who Adams says spent “all game talking s---,” reached out through Facebook with a simple message Adams leaned on the last two weeks as he made his decision: “You could play quarterback here.”
Instead, Adams will head to Eugene, home of Washington’s most-hated rival, and instantly become one of the most compelling storylines of the 2015 season.
Dean Herrington tried to tell every Pac-12 recruiter who came through Bishop Alemany that he had another star in the making, if they would just ignore his size. Herrington had tutored former NFL starters Matt Moore and Kyle Boller, but the coach’s pleas fell on deaf ears. “I was pissed,” Herrington says. “The next few years, when Vernon was at Eastern, all those coaches would come through the school and say, ‘Man, he’s ripping it up.’ I didn’t say anything but in my head I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, I told you he would.’”
Adams credits Herrington with developing him into a college quarterback while at Bishop Alemany, even if only a few colleges showed interest. Coached for years by his dad, Vernon Adams, Sr., Vernon Jr. showed up for practice his freshman year in 2007, and Herrington promptly told him his release was all wrong. He needed to engage his core and bring his arm in closer. Adams went home and told his dad he had learned the incorrect technique from ages 5 to 14. “Who the hell is this guy and what does he know?” Vernon Sr. bellowed. “You’re not doing any of that.”
A few hours later, Vernon Sr. watched as Monday Night Football analysts broke down Tom Brady’s throwing motion, praising his obviously tight core. Dad called son into the living room and said, “You know, why don’t you listen to what this new coach is saying? We’ll try it and see how it goes.”
At Bishop Alemany Adams passed for 5,234 yards with 49 touchdowns and ran for 1,263 yards with 19 scores during the 2009 and ’10 seasons, leading the Warriors to a 22-5 record. Herrington was impressed with Adams’s ability to throw on the run, but even more with his desire to study the game. Alemany lost to prep power Oaks Christian 28-17 in the first game of Adams’s junior season in ’09. Adams studied that film for the next year; in ’10, before the rematch, he brought Herrington a 55-page notebook meticulously detailed with every play his team had run, adding notes about what worked and what didn’t. Days later, behind passing and rushing scores from Adams, Alemany beat Oaks Christian 20-17.
Herrington understands that from the outside, it seems like Adams is at a serious disadvantage by missing Oregon’s spring practice. Jeff Lockie, Mariota’s backup for the last two seasons, already knows the playbook and has been recognized by coaches for his cerebral nature. Travis Waller, a four-star recruit from Anaheim, Calif., will enroll early and participate in spring ball. But Herrington points to Adams’s football IQ as a reason he believes his former star will win the job.
“Spring ball is just 15 practices,” Herrington says. “He’ll get a playbook, he’ll watch all their film, he’ll talk to coaches and new teammates to pick up terminology. He has all summer. There’s plenty of time for him to figure this out.”
Last November, before Eastern Washington started its postseason run, Adams said his goal was to depart as the best quarterback in school history. Certainly he is the most recognizable: He is featured on a local billboard, draws a crowd of postgame autograph seekers and, until Eastern officials took it down this week, had his own Tumblr page, BigPlayVA.com. Eagles coach Baldwin has joked that in terms of attention, the 2013 Oregon State victory was bigger than the ’10 national title.
At Eastern Adams flip-flopped between cockiness and doubt. He maintains a cool demeanor and has a knack for talking trash: Two years ago before the Eagles took on Montana, an FCS power and the team’s biggest rival, Adams used emojis to create a picture of a Grizzly bear getting shot, and posted it on Twitter. He deleted it after being verbally attacked online, and says with a laugh, “Oh my goodness they were mad, but come on, it’s Griz week! We don’t like each other. And you know what, if I played for them they would freakin’ love me for stuff like that.”
But internally he harbored doubts for years. If not for his father, he likely wouldn’t be a football player. In the rougher parts of Pasadena, Calif., where Adams grew up, “all my friends were in gangs.” He wanted to be, too, until Vernon Sr. heard and “gave me a whoopin’ that didn’t make me want to be in one anymore,” Vernon Jr. says with a quick shake of his head. When colleges didn’t come calling, crippling his confidence, it was Vernon Sr. in his son’s ear, telling him he was good enough, and he could prove it somewhere else.
Vernon Jr. redshirted at Eastern in 2011 and entered ’12 as the backup. Yet four games into the season he took over starting duties and flourished. From his spot in the press box, Eagles quarterbacks coach Zak Hill spent a lot of time that year screaming at Adams to throw the ball away, only to watch him escape the pocket and make a spectacular play instead. Teammates got used to it.
“You can never quit on your route because you see him scrambling around, think ‘Oh, he’s sacked,’ and then he squirts out somewhere, takes off again and throws it to you,” says Cooper Kupp, an Eastern receiver and one of Adams’s favorite targets the last two years. “It’s like, how is he getting out of this?”
Coaches loved Adams’s energy and hunger to learn—he lobbied to return kicks and punts in 2012, the memory of which prompts Eastern assistants to roll their eyes—and, after some fine-tuning, his arm.
“He’s not outside the pocket as much as you think,” Baldwin says. “Those are just the plays you remember. It’s like the guy who does one incredible dunk, then hits five jumpers in a row and all you remember is the dunk. Vernon might do something crazy, but the next nine times he’s going to sit in the pocket and dice you up.”
The numbers back up Baldwin. In 2014 Adams completed 251-of-380 attempts (66.1%) for 3,483 yards with 35 touchdowns. His career stats are staggering: 10,548 passing yards with 121 total touchdowns in 37 games. Oregon wasn’t the only brand-name school to notice his play the last three years. UCLA, Texas, Boise State and Maryland all showed interest in Adams, who has grown to 6 feet, 200 pounds since high school.
Eastern has a long history of impressive signal-callers. Two former Eagles, Erik Meyer (2005) and Bo Levi Mitchell (’11), have won the Walter Payton Award, the FCS equivalent of the Heisman. Adams, who missed four games last fall with a broken foot, was the runner-up the last two seasons. He leaves with the belief he will be remembered as one of “the top five” players all time at the school, but remains haunted that he never won a national championship of his own.
“I’m tired of being close, and I know Oregon is tired of being close,” Adams says. “Maybe we can get over that hump together.”
Vernon Sr. picked up his phone Monday afternoon and greeted the caller by singing, “I’m blessed! I’m blessed!” Giddy and clearly proud, he admitted that from the second Vernon Jr. told him about the Oregon offer, he thought his son should take it. “Why not see if you can step up to the bigger stage?” Vernon Sr. told his boy. “The worst thing in life is to look back and say, ‘I shoulda given it a shot.’”
He also pointed out that, similar to when Vernon Jr. arrived at Eastern, the Ducks already have playmakers on offense. Adams won’t be pressured to immediately deliver game-changing plays; rather, he just needs to learn the playbook and get the ball to his teammates. The opportunity to show NFL scouts he can compete at the highest level was good to turn down, Vernon Sr. thought.
On Wednesday Baldwin told a Spokane radio station that Adams would be barred from Eastern’s facilities moving forward. Adams said he understood he needed to stop participating in 7-on-7 drills, and that he and Baldwin are “cool” as far as he knows. Eagles officials have taken subtle shots at Adams’s decision, and there are clearly some bitter feelings over Adams leaving one of the few places that believed in him coming out of high school. Those are amplified by a scheduling twist: Eastern opens its 2015 campaign at Oregon on Sept. 5.
Still, Baldwin acknowledged last November that despite Adams’s accomplishments, NFL scouts would always doubt the pro potential of someone playing in the FCS. “He could throw for 8,000 yards next year and people are still going to find negatives if that’s what they’re looking for,” Baldwin said then. “When they’re recruiting someone from a smaller school, they almost have to look for what’s wrong, in a weird way.”
Adams said Wednesday that while his teammates were sad to see him go, they told him the choice was obvious. It’s a business, they said, and he had to make the best decision for his family. Adams’s girlfriend, Cheyenne Merritt, and son, Vernon Kash Adams III, plan to stay behind in Cheney, but gave Vernon Jr. their blessing to leave. He knows this move is risky and worries he might be considered a failure if he doesn’t earn the starting job. But louder than the doubts are the words from FBS players and coaches who have assured him he is good enough to excel. As someone who has always wanted to coach, Adams also believes getting into the Oregon pipeline could be critical to his future.
“I still have plenty to prove,” he says. “It’s not like I’ve made it yet. But hopefully I can come in and lead this team. Then I say, ‘Dang, I can do it at this level.’ Just me getting this offer, it shows how good Eastern is. They’ve transformed me into a way better quarterback than I was out of high school.”
He knows Mariota casts a long shadow in Eugene, and it’s unlikely any future quarterback will live up to that comparison. But in the confident tone of a player who has already proven so much, Adams knows this, too: “Marcus, he’s really good. The hype, the speed, the arm, it was all true.
“But I don’t doubt myself anymore.”