His rise to prominence has been so meteoric, you wonder how sophomore Vernon Adams Jr. ever ended up in the Big Sky Conference.
He wasn’t exactly a benchwarmer in high school, passing for 5,234 yards and 49 touchdowns and running for another 1,263 in his last two years at Alemany near Pasadena, Calif. On top of that, there’s so many college football recruiters prowling SoCal, it’s a wonder he ended up in chilly Cheney, Wash.
“Definitely it had to do with the national championship,” said the sophomore, referring to Eastern Washington’s FCS title in 2010. “Eastern was the first school to offer. The national championship, the red turf, the great coaches, great receivers, the O-line – that’s it really.
“Plus we’ve been like a leading (Big Sky) school in GPA the last 11 or 12 years. That’s really big. A degree will get you farther than football, especially me. I’m small. Who knows what’s going to happen after football?”
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Standing 6 feet tall, Adams stormed onto the scene as a redshirt freshman in 2012, leading his team to the FCS playoff semifinals. He was selected as the Freshman of the Year on the College Sporting News Fabulous 50 All-America team.
He took it up another level to start the 2013 season. He completed 23 of 30 passes for 411 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 107 yards and two scores in a 49-46 win at FBS Oregon State. The Beavers were ranked No. 25 at the time.
Analysts have started drawing comparisons between the speedy, versatile Adams and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who also stands about 6-feet tall. Adams attended the Russell Wilson Passing Academy in Spokane this summer and the Eagles’ signal caller has switched his number from 16 to 3, which is the same as Wilson.
Adams says it’s because that was his high school number. But one can’t help but wonder if Wilson’s success has him thinking big.
“We’ve had some good ones here in (Erik) Meyer and (Matt) Nichols and Bo Mitchell, but he’s throwing at an efficiency level even better than those guys,” EWU coach Beau Baldwin said of Adams.
“Sometimes you get caught looking at Vernon and talking about his style of play and you think of him as a scrambler. But the thing that makes him unique is that he has that ability to extend a play, but he also has the ability to throw at a high level in terms of being a 68-percent passer.”
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The Eagles and their dynamic field general have their sights set on repeating as Big Sky champs – they shared the title with Montana State and Cal Poly last season – but their perfect 3-0 league mark (5-2 overall) will be in jeopardy Saturday at 1:40 p.m. in Missoula. Montana had Eastern on the ropes last season in Cheney before fading late. The Griz (3-1, 6-1) are anxious to exact a little revenge.
“Montana’s D-line and linebackers are really good,” Adams said. “I have to do a great job putting my O-line in the right protection and our running backs in the right protection.
“It’s the little things you have to do as a quarterback. They also have two really good defensive backs in No. 1 (Anthony Goodwin) and No. 30 (Bo Tully) and I have to be way smarter with the ball than I have been the last few weeks.”
The X factor Saturday is the crowd at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Adams has been warned by his teammates.
“They tell me it’s loud over there and the crowd, the fans are going to say some things to us and they’re right behind us,” he said. “I just have to fight through adversity and have fun, play my game.
“I’m not going to say it’s a concern, but it’s an adverse situation. As long as my team has my back I’ll be fine through good and hard times – don’t let the fans get to me.”
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One big difference between Montana and Eastern Washington is their quality of competition in nonconference play. Montana beat Appalachian State, North Dakota and Division II Oklahoma Panhandle State. Eastern played three monster games on the road, including two against FBS schools.
“It helps us a lot,” Adams said. “Toledo, Oregon State, Sam Houston State, they all showed us different looks.
“Some of those guys are a lot bigger and faster. It helps us be ready to play teams like Montana and Montana State. They’re rivals of us and we have to play our best game, go to Missoula and play our hearts out.”
Adams hasn’t been satisfied with his play lately, although that may be the perfectionist in him coming out. In last week’s 34-10 home win over Southern Utah, the QB threw for 298 yards and three TDs and ran for 58 yards.
He did have one hiccup in the form of an interception. But he leads the FCS in passing efficiency, completing 144 of 214 attempts for 2,189 yards.
“Really they want to throw the football,” Montana coach Mick Delaney said of EWU. “For them to throw 45 to 50 times a game is not a bit unusual.
“Unless they can come out and steamroll you running the ball, their quarterback is too dynamic to sit there and pound it out.”
As effective as Adams has performed, his receiver corps has been an even more pleasant surprise considering its lack of experience going into the season. Four pass-catchers have 20 or more receptions, including Ashton Clark, Cooper Kupp, Cory Mitchell and Shaquille Hill.
“People thought we wouldn’t be as good of a passing team because we lost three great receivers,” Adams said. “But we had three faster receivers to replace those three.”
QUICK KICKS: EWU wideout Hill (knee sprain) did not play against Southern Utah last week but is probable for Saturday ... Eagles starting OT Jake Rodgers (knee sprain) and running back Jabari Wilson (shoulder) have missed five straight games but are probable for Saturday ... Montana reserve wideouts Taylor Walcott and Mitch Saylor sat out last Saturday with injuries but Delaney is hopeful they’ll play in a limited role this weekend ... Baldwin was the Big Sky Coach of the Year in 2012.