Wonder what drives Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams?
It’s a shot that accompanied the story about last year’s FCS national semifinal game. It shows Adams on a knee, staring up at the scoreboard with tears in his eyes following an intense 45-42 loss to Sam Houston State.
The picture is prominently posted in his locker and the sophomore makes sure he looks at it every day.
That image of that moment has driven Adams to become one of the best players in the nation while driving the Eagles closer to the one that got away
“I look at that article every day before I go to practice, whenever I have a bad day, before every home game,” he said. “We’re trying to get to a spot we haven’t been in two or three years. I’m trying to lead my team there.
“We were three points away from going to the national championship game, so close. I want to go out and do my all, give my all. I know everybody else on my team will have my back and as long as I know that I told them I’m going to lead them to the promised land.”
The Eagles fell behind 35-0 in that semifinal, but behind Adams almost pulled off the biggest comeback in FCS Playoffs history. Adams rallied them with four straight touchdowns and his sixth touchdown pass of the second half with three minutes to play got them back within three, but they never got the ball back to take a last-minute shot at the win.
It’s that piece of what record-setting freshman receiver Cooper Kupp called “unfinished business” that has burned within them all season.
“That’s always going to burn you as a competitor,” Eagles coach Beau Baldwin said. “We have a mindset around here, and we’ve had it for some time, even before we won it in 2010. You have to enjoy the process. Your goals still have to be process driven, day-by-day in April and May. It can’t just be the result of one game at the end of the year. You have to enjoy the process, enjoy the grind.
“We don’t hide from talking about it, we talk about the top of the mountain and our ultimate goal is to win national championships. Vernon’s a tremendous competitior and when you’re that ultimate competitor you’re not going to be a guy who settles. He’s definitely not that.”
Fast forward to this season. There’s not enough space in the newspaper to document all that Adams has accomplished. It started with beating No. 25 Oregon State in the opener on a touchdown run that’s a finalist for national play of the year and got him the same kind of national recognition as Cody Blanchard when Jacksonville State beat Ole Miss in 2010. Going into Saturday’s quarterfinal with Jax State, he’s ranked first nationally in passing efficiency (187.1) and second in total offense (368.8 yards) with Big Sky Conference record totals of 4,794 yards and 51 touchdown passes. His efficiency rating is fourth best in FCS history, his total yards fifth and his touchdown passes tied for third.
He has passed for thrown for 400 yards four times this year, including 411 in the Oregon State win, and tossed at least four touchdowns passes eight times, including six against Montana and five in each of his last two games. His 518 yards rushing is a school record for a quarterback. He has 24 plays for 40 yards or longer.
“One of the things I love about Vernon is the way he goes into each (game) with confidence,” Kupp said. “As a receiver that feels good he can do everything in his power to get the ball out. Even when the play’s broken you can never quit on it. He has a tendency to get out of so many tackles, you want to stay alive and get open for him.
“That’s one of the cool things. After a play’s broke the scramble drill that takes place is fun. Everyone in the crowd thinks the play is over, but Vernon has a way to keep it going. It’s a blast.”
It all adds up to Adams being a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, along with Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and Towson running back Terrance West. The award will be presented Tuesday in Philadelphia.
Expectedly, Adams shared his success with his teammates and would gladly trade the award for the national title the Eagles didn’t get a chance to play for last season.
“I don’t really look at that stuff,” he said. “It feels good (to be considered), but it shows how good our team is.
“I feel like the media has blown me up more than they should. I tell everybody I can’t do it on my own; they should be blowing my own team up. The receivers I have are crazy good, you’ll see. The O-line’s not giving up many sacks and our running back is runner better than he ever has. It’s a whole team thing. I’m getting too much attention. There guys are making me out better than I am.”
JSU coach Bill Clark compares Adams favorably to Garoppolo. After that upset of Oregon State people started comparing Adams to another quarterback in their region, Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson.
Adams has worked Russell’s passing camp and they’ve tweeted back-and-forth a few times. Adams even shares Wilson’s jersey number, a recent switch, but it has nothing to do with the comparisons. He explained he has worn the number since his Pop Warner days in Pasadena, but hadn’t at EWU until now because it wasn’t available when he arrived on campus. Until it was, he sported 16 to honor his best friend who died from cancer.
“It’s an honor to be compared to such a young great quarterback like Russell,” Adams said. “It’s awesome for people even to say you kind of play like Russell. I appreciate that. I want to be as good as him one day.”
Some might think he’s already there. Former NFL general manager Gil Brandt wrote recently Adams was a player from the FCS level who could have an impact in the NFL — like Joe Flacco and Tony Romo. He also had Garoppolo, Kupp and Jax State tight end Gavin Ellis in that group.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.