The All-22: Watching tape with Oregon QB Vernon Adams
QB Vernon Adams spent three seasons at Eastern Washington and one at Oregon, finishing his college career with 869 completions in 1340 attempts for 13,081 yards, 136 touchdowns and 37 interceptions. And yet, due to his size (5' 11", 200 pounds), he’s generally regarded to be a third-day pick in the NFL draft, if even draftable at all.
Forget Russell Wilson, forget Drew Brees... Evaluators will tell you they’re the outliers and Adams isn’t in their class. Mike Mayock of the NFL Network told me that he was mightily impressed with Adams’s week at the Shrine Game, and then said he could have a bright future in the CFL. I asked ESPN’s Jon Gruden about Adams, and while he was bullish about Adams’s college performances, he predicted that Adams would not be drafted because of his height. But when I asked Adams about his size, he had plenty to say.
“Put on the film when I’m not playing, and put on the film when I am playing. And see how much of a game-changer I am. The size, man,” says Adams. “I’m not going to get any taller. It is what it is … Just put on the film, man.”
And after watching broadcast tape of his 2015 Oregon season and All-22 of his ’13 and ’14 seasons at EWU, I’m willing to say that a large number of people are missing the boat on Vernon Adams as a potential NFL quarterback.
Some will question the legitimacy of Adams’s opponents, overlooking the six touchdowns he threw for Oregon against USC, or the four touchdowns he threw for Oregon against Cal. Not to mention the time for EWU in 2014 when Adams threw for seven touchdowns and 475 yards against a University of Washington defense that contained three first-round picks and a second-round pick (Shaq Thompson, Marcus Peters, Danny Shelton, Hau’oli Kikaha).
Some will question his deep arm, but he threw 15 touchdowns to four picks last season on passes of 20 yards or more. He’s exceeded 10 yards per attempt twice in his career, including his one season in the Pac-12. And he did that while adjusting to a new offense and dealing with a broken index finger that marred his early-season performances. He topped it all off with a Shrine Game performance where he threw three touchdown passes on three drives, including a 93-yarder. Some will question how Adams will do against NFL defenses after benefitting from a spread offense against some weak Pac-12 defenses, but one could say the same things about Jared Goff.
A quarterback who has proven he has what it takes to be successful at every level will not be drafted because he's the same height as a quarterback who has been in two of the last three Super Bowls, winning one. Is Adams truly not in Wilson’s class, or are the evaluators simply not learning from their prior biases?
“I’ll talk to teams here and there, but nobody’s said that I could be a starter,” says Adams. “Everybody’s knocked me because of my height—they’re saying I’ll go from the third round to not drafted at all. And if I’m not drafted at all, they obviously don’t think I can start. I’ll come in and learn from whoever the quarterback is for however many years or months or days or whatever, get better, and whenever the chance is to get that starting job, I guarantee I’m not going to let it go.”
After reviewing tape with him for 45 minutes, gaining insight on how he leads a team and runs the show in the pre-snap phase, I’m convinced that Adams has the statistical, technical and competitive elements of the best quarterbacks in this class. The fact that he’s seen as undraftable could well go down as one of the biggest misses in recent draft evaluation history. I think he’s Tyrod Taylor on the low side, and Russell Wilson on the high side.
The tape doesn’t lie, and in Adams’s case, it speaks volumes.
Play 1: East-West Shrine Game, third-and-six from West 39-yard-line, 9:08 1Q
Doug Farrar: This play from the Shrine Game displays your mobility and escapability as well as anything I’ve seen. As a quarterback who works inside and outside of the pocket, what are your guidelines on a play like this—when do you stick and when do you bail? When does the switch go off in your head?
Vernon Adams: First of all, knowing my down and distance. Coming out of the huddle and to the line of scrimmage, I see it’s third-and-six. We have the play call and I’m looking at the defense, guessing what they’re in. As I get the ball, I can see what they're in; it’s man-on-man. We have a man-beater to the right side, and I dropped back a little bit, looked to the left and then the right. My receiver, I don’t think he got to the depth of a first down, so I didn’t want to throw it, and we’d have to punt. My clock is ticking, and I’m feeling my left tackle getting pushed back into my face, so I know I have to get out. I was scrambling, but that dude is good, man—that guy from Stony Brook.
DF: Yeah, Victor Ochi.
VA: He did not give up—he’s super-good. He chased me, and I felt him coming. I turned upfield, knew where the first down was, and got the first down. He barely got me; it was a shoestring tackle. Good job by him. But this is just knowing where the sticks are. I saw this [another defender running up to tackle], so I’m going to pump-fake and cut upfield. As soon as I pump-faked, he went for it.
DF: On a lot of your tape, you have a lot of bodies close to you a lot of the time when you move out of trouble. How do you know to avoid tacklers? How much of that is that sixth sense quarterbacks talk about—a combination of peripheral vision and feel?
VA: It’s crazy, because you just have to feel it. I’m not one of those quarterbacks who like to get hit! I’m already kinda small, so I don’t want to get hit. I do a lot of footwork drills when I’m by myself and in the offseason—that’s why I can move my feet so quickly and get out of stuff and get away from people. Once I feel it, I don’t want to sit in the pocket and take a sack... And I’m not going to scramble to run; I’m going to scramble to throw the ball. That’s what I want to do. I’m all about passing yards and winning; I don’t give a damn about running. People think, ‘He’s a black quarterback, so he wants to run.’ I don’t want to run! You see my rushing yards every year; I don’t have more than 400 in any year but one [2013, with 605]. I’m looking for the pass, and if the pass is not there, I’m going for the first down.
DF: That whole black quarterback thing—that still comes up? People are putting you in that same old pigeonhole?
VA: I’m sure they are. When I meet people for the first time, they hit me with the ‘Oh, you’re a runner, aren’t you? You must be super-fast!’ I’m not even fast! I ran a 4.8! I’ve just got game speed, and I can get away from people. I’m not as fast as a Marcus Mariota, with that 80-yard touchdown speed, but I will get away and I will get the first down. Five yards, 10 yards, get out of bounds and save my body.
Play 2: 2016 East-West Shrine Game, third-and-six from East 10-yard line, 5:00 2Q
DF: This touchdown to Illinois receiver Geronimo Allison is a good play to include because it shows all the stuff spread quarterbacks aren’t supposed to be able to do, especially short ones—reading the field with bodies in front of you, hitting a read past your first and throwing with timing and anticipation. Walk me through this play.
VA: We had a read where if it was man, I was going to throw it to the person I threw it to. If it was zone, or two-high or whatever, I was going to work the other side. It was one-high man, and I was looking at the safety. Me and that receiver, Geronimo Allison, we hung out all week together… we were killing it in practice. So, I knew—I had to give him the choice. Coming to the line, I had to tap my head for the post route. I would tap my shoulder for an out route. I’m coming to the line and tapping my head, so I’m already messing with the safety’s head, he thinks I’m going to the left. The left-side receiver already knows he doesn’t have that route. Geronimo already knows, ‘OK, I’ve got the post.’ I started off looking to my left, just to bring the safety over a bit, and I knew Geronimo was going to beat the corner. He did, and I flipped my hips to throw it right on time.
DF: The corner looked like he was cheating to the backfield. Is that how you knew Geronimo was going to beat him?
VA: Yeah. Which he shouldn’t. I mean, he started off looking in, but as soon as the play was on, he’s looking at Geronimo. Geronimo hit him with the out-step and the fake, and then went in.
DF: Was your backside read affected at all by your receivers bumping into each other? Did that throw you more over to playside?
VA: I was never going to that side, ever. I knew where I was going, and I knew I was going to throw a touchdown. I promise you, I walked to the line and said, “This is a touchdown.”
DF: How did you know?
VA: Because I saw the way they were lined up. I knew it was single-high, and I knew I was going to look the safety off, and that's what I did. The safety went over, and I threw it. That's how it goes sometimes, where I'll tell the running back, 'This is going to be a touchdown—watch.' Because I see the defense they're in.
DF: Do you expect defenses to be this easy to read in the NFL, with more coverages, more disguises, more traps?
VA: I think they're going to be doing the same things they do in college. They will be doing fewer coverages, not all the tricky stuff. They'll disguise stuff now and then, but that's part of being a quarterback. You study the team you're playing, how they disguise stuff, what they want to run on third down and first down. The coaches do their jobs—they give you a scouting sheet of what they expect. You come to the line and have a pre-snap read. So, before I even get the ball, I'm looking at the defense and guessing what they’re in. ‘This guy’s lined up here...’ and if they’re disguised, you can tell. If they’re showing Cover-2, but they’re not lined up in their areas, you know something’s going down. As I get the ball and I drop back, I identify the safety, and the safety is going to tell me everything. If he’s just staring and not dropping, it’s Cover-4. If he’s dropping deep and off the hashes, Cover-2. If one's rolling up and one’s rolling back, it’s Cover-3. And you can tell it’s man coverage, when they’re staring at their man. It’s not that hard—it’s just playing football, really.
Play 3: Oregon vs. USC, second-and-11 from USC 21-yard line,11:34 3Q
DF: This play shows how quickly you re-set your body for optimal throwing mechanics. It seems that you have no issue just moving your body to the target in a split second. How much has that been a point of focus, and how much of it is natural?
VA: On this play, I’m rolling to my left. We always say that if you roll out to the right or the left, and nobody's in your face, and you have time to look at the back side, look at the back side. So, that's what I did. Technically, I’m only supposed to read the front side, but with nobody in my face, I knew where I was throwing to, he was going to be wide open. I knew I had to flip my hips right away, and that’s something you work on with quarterback coaches in the offseason. There are drills you do to get better at that. It's athletic ability by me, but it's also the work of my coaches.
DF: What you said about knowing your receiver was going to be wide open, that gets into my next question. How much of this play is about throwing with anticipation: trusting that your receiver will be there when he’s supposed to be? You come to Oregon and a new cast of receivers in 2015; how long did it take you to develop that kind of connection with each guy?
VA: People ask me that a lot, and I tell them that it only takes a week or two to really get timing with anybody. People think it might take longer than that, but I've been playing quarterback since I was five years old. It's not hard. It's, 'Okay, if you throw at this dude a few times, you know when he's going to break on a route.' And once you do that in practice one or two weeks straight, you get it. This guy is fast. This guy isn't as fast, but he can go up and get it. You just know your receivers, and it's not as hard as everybody makes it seem.
DF: You catch cornerback Kevon Seymour flatfooted here. How much do you look for and exploit defenders who pull off their assignments when you start moving around? That’s a huge part of Wilson's big play reel, and it seems like a big part of yours, too. And it's not unplanned for Wilson—the Seahawks have built route concepts into their playbook out of that chaos. How much do you do that?
VA: None of it is planned for me. I’m planning to throw. I can count maybe three times when I came to the line, I don’t like the play call, I see the defense they’re in, and it’s not looking good. Then, if [the first and second receiver] aren’t there, I’m going to scramble. But I’m going to sit in the pocket a little bit, and then scramble. And DBs, they’re thinking they should get to the quarterback in two or three seconds. They stop covering, and when a guy goes deep, it's like that. It’s not planned. I’m going through my reads, 1-2-3, and I’ll get out and try to extend the play as much as I can. Not to run, but to extend the play.
DF: But you obviously know that defenders are going to pull off because you're a threat to scramble—you know this is an advantage for you.
VA: Yeah. Because they come up on me, and they think I’m going to run, and I throw it. Or, they’ve studied me all year, thinking, ‘Oh, he’s not going to throw; I’m going to get back.’ Then, I’ll run for the first down, or I'll look for someone else going deep. I always tell my receivers, Do NOT give up on me. don't be sitting around sucking a lollipop. Go deep, and look for the post. If the post corner and sideline routes aren’t open on the front side, I’ll be looking for the post on the back side, and most of the time, he’s going to be open. Because the cornerback on that side is thinking, ‘There’s no way he's going to throw it there.’ If he is covered, I'll either throw it away or run, if a dude is in my face.
Play 4: Oregon vs. Michigan State, fourth-and-seven from MSU 31-yard line, 12:53 4Q
“If I was 6' 2", I promise you I wouldn’t be in the situation I’m in. I’d be getting drafted, and right now, I don’t know if I will.”
DF: Not to overdo the Russell Wilson comparisons, but this throw reminds me of something I saw in Wilson’s rookie minicamp: it was instant. The ability to throw across your body, from the pocket, with accuracy. And I think this goes back to your ability to read the full field, find anticipatory openings and trust your arm and receivers to make it happen. What was your plan on this play?
VA: It’s fourth-and-seven, and we have a man-beater to the left, and a zone-beater to the right. They were in Cover-4 on this, but they were doubling my receiver up top. I had pre-snapped that already, so I was going to work the left side. We had a corner route and a flat route, and I knew we had to get the first down.
DF: This play also illustrates something you do that I don’t see a lot of college quarterbacks do consistently. You don’t drive the throw—you’re flat-footed— but you still throw with touch and accuracy. How do you adjust on the fly when you can’t get the ball off with ideal mechanics?
VA: As far as being flat-footed, there’s a dude in front of me. I’m aware, and if a dude is in front of me like that... I’ll see where quarterbacks step into the throw anyway, and a guy’s [the quarterback is] going down, and the: boom. That’s their ACL or something. My arm is strong enough to make those kinds of throws. If he hadn’t been right there, I would have stepped into it, and who knows? Maybe it would have been a longer throw. I just knew how much touch I had to put on the ball to get it over that DB’s head, and get it on the sideline where only my receiver can catch it and get two feet in bounds.
Mind you, I have a broken index finger on my right hand, too.
DF: You mentioned touch, and feeling how much you need to put on or take off the ball when you throw. How do you develop that feel?
VA: That’s preparation. That’s timing during the week. It’s work... just getting better every day. You’ve got to be a smart quarterback, and you’ve got to work at it. You’ve got to stay after practice. You’ve got to come early. You’ve got to do all those things. I’m sure all the quarterbacks do that, but... like I said at the start of this, just watch the tape. I believe that if I was 6' 2", I promise you I wouldn't be in the situation I’m in. I’d be getting drafted, and right now, I don’t know if I will.
Play 5: Oregon vs. Michigan State, second-and-goal from MSU 15-yard line, 3:32 4Q
DF: Here’s another good example of you making an accurate throw when you don’t have time to re-set and produce ideal mechanics. You’re a bit flat-footed here, but still time the throw where the receiver can make the play and press away from the defender if necessary. I see a lot of quarterbacks miss wildly when they can’t set and throw. How are you able to maintain your accuracy on the move, in and out of the pocket, and what are you seeing here as things start to break down?
VA: I come to the line, second-and-goal, and we’ve got a fade route to the left…they’re in two-high safety, and it’s what I like to call 4-Lock, or 4-Heavy. That means they're in Cover-4, but since it's trips to the right side, the backside safety has the number-three receiver. I knew he was in that coverage, because he's staring at the number-three receiver, and he's telling me they're in 4-Lock. I've got one-on-one over here [on the back side] with Byron Marshall, and like I said before, this is preparation. During the week, every quarterback, every coach...we know that there are at least two dudes you have to circle to pick on. Or at least one dude, but as many as you can. I had seen that cornerback on Byron Marshall, one of our best guys, and we had said, “If we’re going to pick on somebody, we’re going to pick on him.” Byron had the fade, and I looked the safety off to the right a little bit, got past some pressure, stepped up and made the throw as quickly as possible. I couldn’t step up too much because [the defenders] were coming in, and I knew Byron was better than the cornerback, and I knew he was gonna go get it, so I just threw it up there for him.
DF: You’ve mentioned looking the safety off a couple of times. What approximate percentage of plays are you looking a defender off and redirecting coverage with your eyes?
VA: It just depends on the coverage. If they’re in a Cover-3, and the [defenders] are deep, but we’ve got a short hitch route, I know I need to take the hitch right away. So, there’s no time to look off. Take the hitch and get seven yards. When they’re in man, that’s when you want to look the free safety off. Cover-4, you want to look the guy off. Deeper routes, that’s when you want to look the guy off. Quick game, there’s no time for that. It’s about knowing personnel, knowing if you have your best receiver on their worst corner, and they’re in Cover-4 Lock, just look the safety off a little bit, and get the one-on-one matchup you want.
Play 6: EWU vs. Washington, 2014, 5:52 1Q
“After every bad drive, I let [my teammates know], if it's my fault, it's my fault. If it's their fault, it's still my fault.”
DF: Not a bad performance here for you and the Eagles—75 yards and seven touchdowns against a Washington defense that would send four players to the NFL in the 2015 draft class in the first or second rounds. Before we get into this play, this was an interesting game overall. You got sacked early on, there were mistakes everywhere, you’re down 21–0, things are not going well for you at all, and you are able to turn things around pretty historically. And that’s part of being a quarterback, too—taking your team forward when things aren’t going well. What’s your leadership style in those moments?
VA: Right before the first touchdown drive, we're down 21–0, and they're about to kick off. Marcus Peters comes over and he's talking so much crap to our sideline. You can kinda see on this play,I point at him, and I tell him, “I’m coming right at you.” And that’s what I did. But as a leader, as a quarterback, you can't let what happened in the past affect what you do about it now. Can we change that we fumbled on a kick return? Can we change that I got sacked? No. You have to leave it in the rear-view mirror and move on. Being a leader, you have to make sure everyone knows that. I've been doing something since high school: after every drive, whether it's a really good drive or a really poor drive, I’ll go to my O-line and say, “Hey, good job.” Especially when it’s good. After every bad drive, I let [my teammates know], if it's my fault, it's my fault. If it's their fault, it’s still my fault.
I’ll watch guys like Jay Cutler and Philip Rivers yell so much stuff at their linemen and teammates and stuff... man, I’m not that dude. Sometimes, they know it’s their fault, and they’re yelling at each other, and I’ll go over and settle all that down. That’s my job.
DF: This is the first of your seven touchdown passes in that game, I believe, and it’s a great example of how you re-set in the pocket and place yourself in openings to create throwing lanes—something Drew Brees and Russell Wilson have talked about for years. What reads are you going through on this play, what’s your thought process regarding getting to free space?
VA: It’s good, because especially for us shorter guys, we need windows. When I’m practicing, I’m throwing the ball before the receivers get into their breaks, because the window is going to be super-tight when you get to the NFL. Not every time you’re going to get a window. On this play, they were in Cover-4 Lock, I rolled out to my right, and the safety was supposed to be on top of my receiver, helping the corner out. I look to my left, knowing I’m going back to the right to Cooper Kupp, and when I checked to my left, getting the safety to check to the left so I can get the one-on-one.
Play 7: Oregon vs. Cal, third-and-goal from Cal seven-yard line 8:42 1Q
DF: Okay, enough of the good tape! I wanted to include this interception, because it showed you throwing into traffic, not something I see a lot on your tape. You had two picks against Cal. Was this a function of the rain, the finger injury, or something else? What was supposed to happen here, and what went wrong?
VA: Yeah, this was on me. They were in Cover-4 Lock, and I knew they were in Cover-4 lock, but I forced it. I was supposed to read it inside to out, that was my boy Devon Allen trying to go inside, and I saw all those guys in there, but I tried to force it. I should have gone outside, because that was wide open.
DF: So in this case, the lock [shift] coverage is on the right slot receiver?
VA: Yeah. The inside guy is covered, you go outside. Quarterbacks will get greedy, and I shouldn’t have done it, but it is what it is.
DF: What did [coach] Mark Helfrich say to you after that?
VA: He said, “Vernon—what are you doing? He was covered, you should have gone outside. You know that, right?” I said, “Yeah coach, my bad. I knew that.” He told me to shake it off, and I threw four touchdowns after that.
DF: Final question: You’re in a room with skeptical NFL executives, and you have to sell them on why you should be a high pick with starter potential. What do you say?
VA: I’ll just tell them what I told you, straight up. My preparation and love for the game…we all love the game the same, but my preparation is different. I always go by this Russell Wilson quote that I’ll never forget: “The separation is in the preparation.” It’s so true, and that’s why I know I need to be here, preparing hard. Just throw on the film, and compare when I’m in the game, and when I’m not. I'm not saying our backup quarterbacks were bad. They’re getting their wins and losses, or whatever. But then, watch when I’m playing, and see how much of a difference there is. I’m not saying that it’s just me, but I have a different energy all the time, on and off the field.
I love this game, and when I get that shot, you’re all going to see.