University of Washington

Vernon Adams, Eastern Washington’s do-everything QB, presents big challenge for young Huskies secondary

It was only Tuesday, and already the Washington Huskies defensive coaches were running out of stellar quarterbacks to reference in comparison to Vernon Adams.

Did you watch football in the 1970s? OK. Adams is Fran Tarkenton.

More of a modern-day fan? Fine. He’s Johnny Manziel.

“I called him ‘Vernon Football’ the other day,” Huskies defensive line coach Jeff Choate said.

Want to keep it hyper-local? Great. Cue the Seahawks film.

“He’s going to be a Russell Wilson-type guy that’s going to run around and keep plays alive, and if he sees guys downfield, he’s going to throw darts,” said UW defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake, “and if everyone’s covered up, he’s going to try to run for 10 and run for a first down.”

To be sure, Adams, the junior quarterback who leads Eastern Washington into a noon game Saturday against UW at Husky Stadium (Pac-12 Network), has done plenty during his college career to inspire superlatives.

He’s a 6-foot, 190-pound headache for opposing defensive coordinators, equally adept with his arm (4,994 yards passing in 2013 with 55 touchdowns, both Big Sky records) as he is with his legs (605 yards rushing last season).

Adams finished second last season in the voting for the Walter Payton Award, given annually to the top player in the Football Championship Subdivision. He was a first-team All-American, according to several outlets who vote on such honors, and a unanimous first-team all-Big Sky selection en route to that conference’s offensive player of the year award.

So it is with mounting evidence that Choate says: “I think Vernon Adams is as good of a player as there is at any level in the country.”

Which makes it all the more puzzling that his only two scholarship offers out of Alemany High School in Mission Hills, California, were from EWU and Portland State.

“Everybody was saying I was too short, too small,” Adams said Tuesday during a phone interview, and the Wilson comparison is starting to make even more sense.

Doubts about his size motivated him, Adams said, but only briefly.

“Now, it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “I love where I’m at right now, and I love the way I’m with these athletes that are over here, and we’re doing good things over here.”

The Eagles (2-0 and ranked No. 2 in the FCS coaches poll), national champions in 2010 and near-annual participants in the FCS playoffs under seventh-year coach Beau Baldwin, are not a standard lower-division outfit. Three years ago, they outgained the Huskies 504-250, losing 30-27 only after Desmond Trufant intercepted a Bo Levi Mitchell pass in the end zone on EWU’s final possession. Two years ago, the Eagles visited Pullman and lost 24-20 to Washington State, a Hail Mary pass falling incomplete on the final play. And last season, EWU stunned Oregon State at Reser Stadium, winning 49-46 in its season opener.

It’s the Eagles’ offense that is likely of most concern to the Huskies. Baldwin employs a spread passing attack, though senior running back Quincy Forte — questionable for Saturday with a knee injury — also rushed for 1,208 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Through its first two games (against Sam Houston State and Montana Western), EWU has averaged 603.5 yards and scored 97 points.

Cooper Kupp, a sophomore receiver from Yakima (he’s also questionable for Saturday with an ankle problem), was Adams’ main target a year ago, catching 93 passes for 1,691 yards and 21 touchdowns.

He, too, looks at his quarterback and sees greatness.

“It’s unbelievable,” Kupp said. “He makes our job as receivers very easy. His command of the offense, being able to see defenses, read coverages, see fronts, pick up blitzes, check plays. Once a play starts, I don’t know if there’s anyone better in the country at making plays and extending plays the way that he does.”

Believe the Huskies have noticed. And noticed. And noticed.

“He’s able to identify man (coverage), see safety rotation, change the protections,” Choate said. “That’s some second-level stuff in terms of what they’re asking him to do, and he does a really good job of getting them in the right play, and when things break down, he’s got the ability to make it right, too.”

All of which presents quite the challenge for a Huskies secondary featuring three first-year starters, a group still figuring things out after an up-and-down performance during UW’s 17-16 victory at Hawaii last week.

“(If) we’re in a certain coverage and they don’t like it, he’s going to check it and get them in a different play,” defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said. “So we’ve got to be on our ‘A’ game, for sure.”