CHENEY, Wash. — Before he’ll get to partner up with Royce Freeman, Byron Marshall and the rest of the Oregon Ducks, Vernon Adams Jr.’s new running mate is Panda Paul.
Adams, the fall-through-the-cracks QB recruit from Southern California who blossomed into a record-setting, playmaking machine at the FCS’s Eastern Washington, is for the next four months essentially on his own, pushed out into the margins by his old school as he makes one of the more fascinating transitions any college transfer has ever made.
That’s where Panda Paul comes in, and why at 6:30 a.m. on a 28-degree Monday morning, he and Adams have come to an empty strip mall. It is a holiday, but not for Adams.
Inside a small fitness center, there are just three people working out: a 40-something man; a woman in her 70s in gray wool socks and sandals pedaling on a recumbent bike; and Adams. There are no weight room staffers or attendants, and unlike most fitness centers there is no music blaring. Instead, there is only the audio from a local newscast playing on one of the TVs, and that sound is drowned out by Adams’ breathing, which is amplified to sci-fi levels because half of the QB’s face is cloaked in something called a Training Mask, a Bane-looking device designed to crank up conditioning by simulating high-altitude training.
It was Adams’ idea for the dawn training session and for the mask.
"I’m never up this early," said Panda Paul, who said he got that nickname because a friend told him he resembled the sad-eyed endangered species.
Panda Paul is a bodybuilder and is in the process of getting ready for a local physique competition. He concedes he’s never actually trained anyone before today but he got to know Adams from EWU’s weight room and offered to help. His Instagram account ("PandaPaulFitness") is full of training tips and before-and-after shots of a shredded Panda Paul. He runs Adams through a series of upper body and core exercises with 15- to 20-second timed respites in between sets. Adams is instructed with little tips ranging from the angles he should be taking as he grips two dumbbells to how he should posture his upper body to enhancing his breathing.
Adams says he opted for the early-morning workouts because he’s always been an early riser. Plus, it gives him more time for recovery so he can be ready for his afternoon throwing session with a former EWU teammate who still lives in the area. It’s rare these days for an active college QB to have to hustle to find a place to train or receivers to throw to, but such is life for Adams, just a week after announcing that he was transferring to Oregon to spend his final season of eligibility rather than staying on with the FCS powerhouse that just so happens to be the season-opening opponent for the Ducks at Autzen Stadium.
To say that situation is awkward is an understatement. Adams’ departure made national news because as the FCS National Player of the Year for 2014, and a guy who accounted for a jaw-dropping 100 TDs the past two seasons, he figures to be the guy most likely to replace Heisman Trophy-winner Marcus Mariota as the Oregon starter. Then, his story got extra shelf-life two days later. EWU coach Beau Baldwin said on a local radio station that his old quarterback was barred from using the school’s facilities.
Adams told FOX Sports he understood Baldwin’s decision and had been told ahead of time. Adams added that he was surprised to hear that part of the story got so much attention because he’s been more focused on trying to get up to speed for his transition to Oregon’s system — especially since all of the Ducks QBs have the advantage of honing their timing in spring football and he won’t be able to join them till June after he graduates from EWU.
"It’s tough not being with either Oregon or Eastern and not having guys pushing you to be better," Adams said, "but it’s the motivation you got to have. You got to want it. And me going to Oregon, I really want it and I want to do it for my son and I want to do it for my family.
"I’m just going to be lifting twice a day and running as much as I can and trying to stay in shape, and get even faster. My high school track coach sent me some track workouts to try to keep my speed."
Adams also has some cut-ups of the Ducks offense so he can learn their formations. He said he talks to his new teammates often, speaking with Oregon wideout Bralon Addison about every other day to help with the transition as he tries to learn from a distance.
While Eastern Washington amassed almost 7,200 yards of offense last season and scored more than 44 points per game — more than anyone else in FCS football — the Eagles’ system is quite a bit different than Oregon’s. There is some similarity in the passing game but Oregon does a lot more reading of defenders within its scheme. The hardest part of Adams’ adjustment, though, figures to be in the terminology. Still, folks around the Ducks program are thrilled for his arrival. They know how quick he is and how willing he is to hang in the pocket under pressure to deliver the ball and not flinch. Plus, they’ve seen the film of Adams shredding the Ducks’ two archrivals, Washington and Oregon State, the past two seasons; he piled up 11 TDs and zero INTs.
The notion that Adams was the subject of one of the hottest recruiting battles of the winter is a little funny to the 22-year-old quarterback. After all, four years ago, despite putting up gaudy numbers against top competition in Southern California, he couldn’t get a sniff from any major college program. Dean Herrington, a longtime high school football coach in the L.A. area, was so frustrated by the process. Herrington is a guy who knows quarterback talent. He’s developed a few QBs who have started in the NFL, including Kyle Boller and Matt Moore, and a bunch more who started at the FBS level. The Bishop Alemany High head coach tried to tell all the college recruiters who came to the San Fernando Valley that he had another stud QB primed for the big-time, but this time no one would listen.
"I tried to tell people," Herrington said, "but no one would pull the trigger. I said, ‘He’s special.’"
Problem was, Adams was about 5-foot-10, 170 pounds at the time and that scared off all the FBS schools. He also didn’t go to any camps or combines because his high school coach didn’t like his players doing that. Adams would search for his name online and scour the various recruiting sites to get a better sense of where he fit in, he says. Only his name never came up. He was a no-star recruit. And, for much of his senior season of high school, he didn’t even have a single small-college offer either. "I was just like, ‘Man, I’m not going to make it. Like, I’m too short, I’m not good enough,’" he said. But then Eastern Washington offered him a scholarship and then Portland State, another FCS program, did too.
"I was just blessed to have one scholarship," Adams said. "I’m just very thankful that they noticed my talents and helped develop my talents to where they are today."
Adams never used the snubs from the major colleges as motivation. "I didn’t really look at it like that," he said. "I knew I was too small. I was just going to come over here, make the best of my opportunities and just go hard."
Eastern Washington’s faith in Adams was rewarded. He threw for almost 11,000 yards and produced 121 touchdowns, displaying an uncanny ability to scramble out of trouble and deliver pinpoint passes on the run. In back-to-back seasons, Adams came in second for the Walter Payton Award, honoring the nation’s top FCS player. Coming off an 11-3 season, in which he triggered the most prolific offense in FCS football, Adams hoped to lead EWU to a national title, win the Payton and go down as the greatest QB in school history in his final season. When he watched the national championship game between Oregon and Ohio State, he says he didn’t think he’d actually be playing for Oregon, his “dream school” growing up, in 2015.
However, about a week after the Ducks lost, Herrington told Adams he had a shot to finish his college career at the major college level. He advised Adams to showcase his game for pro scouts on a weekly basis and that he should at least hear what the FBS coaches have to say. At the time, much of the college football media’s attention was focused on a different QB possibly transferring as a grad student, Ohio State’s Braxton Miller. The graduate "free agent" is a trend made more prominent by the success Russell Wilson had going from N.C. State to Wisconsin. Making the Miller story spicier was the fact that Alabama, FSU and Oregon were among the powerhouse programs in need of a new quarterback.
Adams got permission from Eastern Washington to contact other schools and reached out to Boise State, UCLA and Oregon — and discovered that this time the big-time programs were very interested in him. "I was definitely surprised" that Oregon was so interested, he said. "I never thought I was an Oregon-type quarterback. You know, it’s the No. 2 team in the nation. So, it was just really crazy and very humbling."
In addition to Adams’ exploits at the FCS level and particularly against some Pac-12 opponents, Herrington and Adams both think that the success 5-10 Wilson has had in the NFL, leading the Seahawks to back-to-back Super Bowls, helped open lots of folks’ eyes.
"Russell Wilson opened a lot of doors for us smaller quarterbacks, because the things he’s doing over there, all the success he’s having, is showing that you don’t have to be 6-2 to 6-3, 6-4," Adams said. "Us quarterbacks can do it at 5-10, 5-11. I could do exactly what other quarterbacks are doing, I’m just smaller, you know? But I prepare hard, and I’m just thankful that Russell Wilson’s doing good, so that’s opened doors for me."
Adams’ decision came down to Oregon or staying at Eastern Washington. Texas tried to recruit him but came in too late in the process, he said. Adams talked to UCLA and considered taking a visit there the week after he visited Oregon, but opted not to after thinking more about his situation. He said he had no idea what Miller might do, and that "Oregon told me straight up that they were coming after me and, if they didn’t get me, then maybe they go after him, but they said they were coming after me first.
"They kept it real, and they’re very family-oriented over there, and very welcoming. All the guys, the players, coaches, and they showed me a lot of love on my visit. It seemed like an opportunity of a lifetime."
Adams also was wowed by the Ducks’ facilities and their uniforms. Plus he knew the chance to be immersed in the Ducks’ offensive scheme would make him more marketable as someone who hopes to coach after his playing career.
Still, Adams agonized over the decision. There was plenty more he’d hoped to accomplish at EWU. He also just became a father in the past year, having a son with his girlfriend, who is still in college at EWU. The quarterback knew that going to Oregon meant he’d see Vernon III a lot less. "That was such a big factor in why I didn’t want to go," he said. "I’ve thought about him the whole time. I’m not going to see him as much and that’s going to be really tough for me, but at the same time if all this goes well and I have a good season, I get a chance to play in the NFL and I can provide for my family and show him things that I wanted to see."
Adams’ announcement that he was transferring to Oregon fired up the Ducks fan base. He’d been on Instagram for two weeks and his followers jumped to more than 6,000 with many sending him welcome messages. Lots of Eastern Washington fans tweeted him to say good luck and to say they appreciate everything he’d done for them, although he also heard some folks inside the EWU program were very upset.
"I guess some of the guys were kind of butt-hurt on the football team and took my All-American awards down in the locker room and taped up my locker and stuff," Adams said, "but that’s all right. I talked to them a little bit after they did that and we talked it out."
Adams said he and Baldwin have spoken a couple of times since he made his decision to transfer. "He’s very professional and supportive of my decision," Adams said. "He was just worried that hopefully nothing goes wrong with my senior year or that I don’t earn the starting spot.
"It is a big gamble, but I’m just going to continue to work hard, throw routes with other guys around here, and keep my arm loose. And when I get there, I’ll just go 10 times harder, and get the chemistry with the guys and lead by example. To try to earn that starting spot."
As for exactly what Oregon’s getting, the Ducks’ new QB is nothing if not self-aware. Tell Adams he looks bigger than you expected and he smiles. "It must be the shoes," he says, looking down at his black Nike cross-trainers. "I’m 5-10 and three-quarters. That’s what I’ve measured at. I don’t need to lie about my size. I know in the books it says I’m 6-foot. I’m not. If someone’s going to ask me, I’m going to tell you straight. I’m 5-10 and three-fourths and I’m going to give you all I got. The film doesn’t lie, you know."
Adams is honest about both his size and his speed. He did run track in high school, competing in the 400 and the 4×400 relay, but he’ll be the first to point out he doesn’t have Mariota’s wheels nor does he like to run the ball as much. "I’m not a runner like guys think," he said. "I can — just to get out of things and extend the play."
Adams’ plan: make sure Marshall, Freeman, Addison and all of the Ducks’ speedsters get the ball in the right places and just let them do the rest. If that happens, lots of folks in Oregon should be very happy, especially the 5-10 and three quarters QB.