Vernon Adams set the FCS ablaze over the last two seasons, crafting a legacy that will not soon be forgotten by football fans in the West. The Eastern Washington Eagles won’t forget him either. And his unexpected departure will be the Eagles’ fuel in 2015.
Adams shredded Big Sky Conference records in just two seasons as a full-time starter at Eastern Washington. As a sophomore in 2013, he set Big Sky records by throwing for 4,995 yards and 55 touchdowns as he led EWU to the FCS Final Four. Last season, he broke his foot and still managed to win the Big Sky’s Offensive MVP by throwing 35 touchdowns in eight games. By the end of last season, he’d piled up 110 touchdowns, breaking the all-time Big Sky record in a league famous prolific gunslingers from Weber State’s Cameron Higgins and Jamie Martin to Idaho’s John Friesz and Doug Nussmeier to Montana’s Dave Dickenson and Brian Ah Yat.
During the off-season, Adams somehow outdid himself and dominated not just the FCS news cycle. He crafted part of the preseason narrative for all of college football.
In February, Adams declared he would graduate after four years at EWU and transfer to the University of Oregon for his final year of eligibility. The Ducks are fresh off a national runner-up finish and need to replace 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariotta. Adams tore the Pac 12 apart in his two career starts. He threw for 411 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 107 yards and two more scores in a 49-42 win over No. 25 Oregon State in 2013. He threw for 475 yards and seven touchdowns in a 59-52 loss to Washington last season. He wanted a chance to navigate a full Pac 12 slate.
But the transfer was not easy. Adams walked during EWU’s graduation in May. He failed to complete a math class. He moved to Eugene to take summer school and try to earn his degree. On Thursday, he was a trending topic on Twitter as he took his final exam. Later that night, the results were in: Adams passed.
Meanwhile in Cheney, Washington, the Eagles were already chasing another banner.
On Tuesday, two days before Adams’ much-anticipated math exam, EWU head coach Beau Baldwin told the Spokane-area media that Adams would not be a part of the Eagles even if he failed to qualify at Oregon.
It’s the attitude Baldwin and his Eagles are taking: they don’t need Big Play VA. In fact, his departure is something they are trying to channel to make a run at their fifth Big Sky Conference ring in the last six seasons.
“We didn’t lose any confidence at all,” EWU senior left tackle Clay DeBord said. “It’s next man up. Vernon, well…I’m not going to badmouth Vernon. He made his decision. We have the 2015 season ahead of us and we want to go win a Big Sky championship and ultimately a national championship.”
“Around here, it set a bigger fire. We had a big fire because we’ve fallen short (of a national title) for three years now but him leaving lit an even bigger fire,” added senior wide receiver Shaq Hill, arguably the fastest player in the Big Sky. “He’s just one guy. We had confidence in him. But we have confidence that we are going to keep rolling.”
Over the last few years, Adams and his Eastern Washington offensive teammates shared the mindset of the overlooked athlete. The group played with a chip on their collective shoulders. Hill, Adams and former running back Quincy Forte weren’t big enough for the FBS, critics said. Record-setting receiver Cooper Kupp wasn’t fast enough, they said.
That same core of EWU offensive players tore the league apart. In 2013, Eastern Washington became the first team other than the Montana Grizzlies to go undefeated in Big Sky Conference play thanks in part to scoring 80 touchdowns. Last season, the Eagles topped the feat in one less game by scoring 84 touchdowns despite Adams’ absence for a month.
Now Kupp, a two-time first-team All-America, and the Eagles’ other returning weapons, will have to prove they can produce without VA at the controls of EWU’s high-octane offense.
“Football was our lives. He’s one of my best friends in the whole world,” said Kupp, who’s caught nearly 200 passes and 37 touchdowns in two seasons in Cheney. “When he said he was leaving, it was so hard. But I know he put a lot of thought into it. I talked to him about it quite a bit and at the end of the day he felt it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. He’s got his son and he thought this was best for his family.”
“I didn’t feel any betrayal at all because we are all different people,” Hill added. “I congratulate him.”
If there’s one truth throughout the last 20 years of football in the Big Sky Conference, it’s that the player under center at EWU will produce. It started in 1997 when Harry Leons won the Big Sky Offensive MVP and led the Eagles to the semifinals of the FCS playoffs.
Since Josh Blankenship in 2002, five different EWU quarterbacks have won the Big Sky Offensive MVP for a total of eight total awards. Erik Meyer won the award in 2004 and 2005, finishing his career as EWU’s first Walter Payton Award winner. Matt Nichols won the award in 2007 and 2009, finishing as the league’s all-time leader in passing yards with 12,616 yards. The year after leading EWU to its first-ever FCS national title, Bo Levi Mitchell won the 2011 Big Sky MVP and the Payton Award. And Adams won the Big Sky’s highest honor while finishing as the runner-up in the Payton the last two years.
“I don’t think our identity will change at all,” said Baldwin, who’s entering his 12th season at EWU, including his seventh as the head coach. “You can’t replace legends. But the identity of who we are as a team, what we stand for, the style of play, you aren’t going to see a lot of change with that.”
In a moment of foreshadowing that now seems almost eerie, Adams broke his foot in a 56-53 shootout win against Idaho State last season. He missed the next four starts. In his absence, Jordan West got a dress rehearsal for what those at Eastern now hope is an award-winning debut act this fall.
“Vernon left and it was big deal for a little while but now we don’t even think about it,” said West, who threw nine touchdowns and led EWU to a 3-1 record with Adams out. “I’m loving it It’s great to be out here with all the guys and to be the guy. I feel very comfortable with this spotlight.”
A talented supporting cast will ease West’s transition from heir apparent to the general of one of the national’s most traditionally explosive offenses. The Eagles return five senior starters along the offensive line, including All-America guard Aaron Neary and DeBord, an All-America candidate who’s started 48 straight games.
“That’s our job: to protect Jordan,” DeBord said. “The more he’s comfortable, the better he’s going to play. Ultimately, it starts with us up front. The more we can keep him comfortable back there in the pocket, he’ll do just fine. He got broken in. This year, he’s going to have a breakout year.”
Kupp, Hill and junior Kendrick Bourne are proven pass catchers. Many wonder if Adams made them the players they are. The trio can’t wait to help West be the guy who makes everyone forget about the departed.
“Jordan’s style is he has a straight NFL arm and everything follows,” Hill said. “His arm is so big. He can make any throw in the field. Since he stepped on campus, he’s always had a gun. His accuracy is great and he’s real calm. We will make him feel more comfortable than he already does.”
Since that famed 1997 season, Eastern Washington has been the Big Sky’s flagship program outside the state of Montana. Over the last 10 years, it can be argued EWU is the cream of the Big Sky crop, even if Montana and Montana State are included in the conversation. The Eagles have won six Big Sky titles since 2004, including all but the 2011 title this decade. Baldwin is 45-11 against Big Sky competition, including a 34-6 mark over the last five seasons.
Adams was a part-time starter as a redshirt freshman in 2012. He had his coming out party a six-touchdown performance in the second half after spelling starter Kyle Padron during a playoff semifinal loss to Sam Houston State. He started just 21 games, albeit prolific ones, as a sophomore and a junior. If history is any indication, the Eagles should know full well that there was life before Adams and life will go on now that Big Play VA is gone.
“Our expectations is a national championship and it’s been that way when we won one before we all got here and it will be that way after we are gone,” Hill said. “We’ve fallen short all three years I’ve been here. This season, it’s the same expectations. Anything less than a Big Sky title and a run at a national title would be a disappointment.”
Photos courtesy of EWU Athletics. Feature photo by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.