**Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the Emerald’s Duck Season magazine, a preview of the Oregon football team’s upcoming season that is currently available for free at all Duck Store locations in Eugene.
Since Feb. 9, an aura has been floating around Oregon football and those who follow the team — one only invoked by an exciting transfer quarterback.
That was the day Vernon Adams Jr., a graduate transfer from Eastern Washington, announced his plans to leave Cheney, Washington, and join the national championship runner-ups.
Later this summer, Adams, who needs to complete one more math class at Eastern Washington to successfully complete his transfer to Oregon, hopes to compete against incumbent backup Jeff Lockie for the starting job.
With Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota’s career in the rearview mirror, Oregon needs a new quarterback on which to latch its hopes and goals. Adams appears to be a worthy candidate to fill Mariota’s humongous Nikes.
No surprise considering Adams’s career at Eastern Washington was the stuff of legends.
Adams totaled 10,438 yards passing in three years as Eastern Washington’s starting quarterback, throwing 110 touchdowns in comparison to 31 interceptions.
But the legend of Vernon Adams didn’t start at Eastern Washington. It began on the football field at Cerritos College, Dec. 4, 2010, in the final game of his high school career.
Adams’s high school, Bishop Alemany, lost to Southern California powerhouse Servite that Friday night. In the morning after’s edition of the Los Angeles Times, the main story was about the performance of a 5-foot-10 losing quarterback with no major Division I offers.
“After Servite had held off Bishop Alemany, 28-21, Saturday night in a Pac-5 Division semifinal game at Cerritos College, there was agreement by both sides that in defeat, Alemany quarterback Vernon Adams was simply marvelous.”
“He was the best player on the field,” Eric Sondheimer — the writer of the story — recalled 4 1/2 years later.
The Bishop Alemany freshman football team had been practicing for a month when Adams decided to go to the school. He lived 25 minutes south in Pasadena, but decided that Alemany was his best fit.
This time, Adams, the new kid in town, didn’t bring along the same hype that he did to Oregon.
“There weren’t any rumors about who he was,” said Tyler Dabovich, who was practicing as the team’s starting quarterback before Adams. “There wasn’t a certain hype to him.”
Adams took over the starting quarterback job while Dabovich moved to strong safety.
“I was more defensive minded, anyways,” Dabovich said.
But Dabovich and Adams’ relationship was not as smooth at first.
Early in the two leaders’ careers at Alemany, Dabovich saw Adams as a leader that earned respect through his title as the team’s starting quarterback while Dabovich preferred to lead by example.
“It started off a little rocky in high school,” Dabovich said regarding his relationship with Adams. “He works a lot harder now on his craft, but early in high school he got by a lot with just talent.”
When it was Dabovich and Adams’ turn to play for varsity at Alemany, their relationship strengthened.
Adams had grown more into a true leader. Instead of resting on his talent, he was taking practice, weight room and film sessions more seriously, Dabovich said.
Five years ago, at the start of their senior season, Dabovich said he couldn’t fathom the idea that Adams could end up at a Division I school like Oregon.
That all changed for him in the final game of their career against Servite, a game in which Adams truly earned the nickname, “Big play V.A.”
“It was that Servite game where he literally left it all out on the field,” Dabovich said. “100 percent. That was a statement to his character.”
Then-Servite head coach Troy Thomas knew, after watching film and preparing for Alemany, that the semifinal matchup was “going to be an epic battle.”
“It was going to be a huge offense versus a tough defense,” said Thomas, now the coach of Crespi High School in Los Angeles.
Before the game, Thomas used Cody Pittman, the all-time winningest quarterback in Servite history who later played at Villanova, as the scout team quarterback to try and imitate Adams.
It wasn’t close to the show Adams put on.
“He wasn’t the same athlete,” Thomas said. “That’s for sure. Vernon could do it all.”
Servite’s goal against Adams going into the game was to keep him contained in the pocket. Against a normal quarterback, the Servite defense could accomplish that, but not against Adams.
“When we had him, we still couldn’t get a good shot on him,” Thomas said. “Even when we had him pinned and he couldn’t go anywhere, we couldn’t get a shot on him. We prided ourselves on hitting those guys and being physical as a defense – and that Servite team was a very physical defense – no matter how we thought we had him, he never took a shot.”
Servite running back Malik Felton-Jackson, who rushed for 146 yards and a touchdown, got the best view of the Adams show. He watched him almost every play as Adams would drop back to pass, spin and break would-be Servite tacklers, and throw the ball down the field.
“My jaw was dropped the entire time,” Felton-Jackson said. “I had to stop myself from clapping and cheering for him. He was the best player I ever saw play.”
Matt Inman, the Orange County defensive player of the year in 2010, came to the sideline frustrated after one of Adams’ drives.
“Coach, we can’t tackle him,” Inman told Thomas. “I can’t even get a shot on him.”
Eventually, Servite did just enough on defense to contain Adams, sneaking out with a seven-point victory. Adams rushed for 153 yards and completed 19 of 34 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns in the loss.
“He put on a show,” Thomas said. “They were a great team, but that was their leader. We snuck out of there with a ‘W’, and I just think he played a great game. He almost single-handedly got that done for them.
“He was trying to win a championship and he left it on the field. You just have to have respect for guys like that.”
Adams’ impact on Thomas and Felton-Jackson didn’t end on the Cerritos College field.
To this day, Felton-Jackson and his family talk about the game Adams had that night. Legendary tales of the moves he made and the tackles he avoided are still passed around.
“We look up his stats and watch him,” Felton-Jackson said. “We knew he was going places. We knew if he had the chance to play for a national championship runner-up and take over, that he definitely could. That’s what we loved about him.”
For Thomas, his confirmation of Adams’ future came the next day when he received an email from the 5-foot-10-inch Alemany
quarterback. In the message, Adams congratulated Thomas and Servite on the win, saying how great it was to face off against such a great opponent.
The level of humbleness that Adams showed in the message – a far cry from the quarterback Dabovich first met freshman year at
Alemany – confirmed to Thomas that Adams had a bright future.
“I played against a lot of great players over the years,” Thomas said, “that’s the first and only time a kid has said congratulations after a tough loss. That really stood out to me. I think a lot of people missed on this kid.”
Talented prospects falling through the cracks of Division I recruiting is something Thomas sees every year. He said it’s frustrating to see players not fit the numbers or the mold for college systems based on their height or other definable characteristics.
Adams wasn’t the most highly recruited player on Alemany that year.
The honor went to Akeem Gonzales, a three-star defensive end who played at Oregon State until 2013 before leaving football and the school. Today, Gonzales goes to school at Pierce Community College in Los Angeles where he’s studying horticultural, the study of garden cultivation.
Dabovich remembers coaches from Oregon State having conversations with Adams on their trips to see Gonzales. They sent Adams letters, as well. The undersized quarterback never found a spot on a team.
Still, according to both Dabovich and Felton-Jackson, Adams was never deterred. Instead, he told them he was blessed to be offered by anyone at all.
Thomas said he hopes Adams does well in his senior year, even with his former quarterback Travis Jonsen, who’ll be a freshman at Oregon this year, also in the quarterback pool.
“Chalk one up for the undersized, under-recruited guys,” Thomas said. “I’m rooting for him and I really hope he does well.”
As for his next destination, the aura that Adams brings with him to Oregon will only be validated or dissipated by his performance in an Oregon uniform and how he compares to Mariota.
Felton-Jackson said he believes strongly in Adams, the greatest player he’s seen, to make the seamless transition to Oregon’s starting quarterback, citing Adams’ performances against FBS teams in the past.
“Tell Oregon fans, if he comes through and he gets the starting job, that they have nothing to worry about,” Felton-Jackson said. “They’re big shoes to fill, but he could definitely do it in a heartbeat.”
Follow Joseph Hoyt on Twitter @JoeJHoyt