Ask most Oregon fans and they’ll tell you Royce Freeman is the Ducks’ best chance at bringing the Heisman Trophy back to Eugene after this season.
That claim isn’t entirely false, as Freeman is an electric running back who has surprising speed despite his power back frame; he can run between the tackles and on the outside, he excels in pass protection – most running backs do not — and he can catch the ball out of the backfield.
These are all no-brainer pieces to creating an ideal Heisman candidate, but Freeman is missing one piece to the Heisman puzzle and it is likely the most important piece. Anyone care to venture a guess? Anyone at all?
Freeman isn’t a quarterback, and that cuts deep into his chances of hoisting the hardware.
Since we entered the 21st century there have been only two running backs to take home the award – Mark Ingram Jr. in 2009 and Reggie Bush in 2005 (the award has since been vacated for NCAA violations by USC and Bush).
That gives the running back position a 13 percent success rate in the last 15 Heisman races. With that, I think it’s hard to call any running back a favorite candidate, let alone a “lock it in” candidate, although Freeman does deserve to be in the early season conversation.
With that in mind, if the Ducks are going to have back-to-back Heisman winners, it’s more likely going to come from the new man under center.
Enter Vernon Adams Jr., the Ducks’ new signal caller by way of Eastern Washington University. I’m sure by now most of our readers are familiar with Mr. Adams’ accolades playing with the Division I FCS Eagles. For those who might need a refresher, here are his stat lines in his three seasons with the Eagles:
2012 – 1,961 yds | 20 TD | 8 INT | 60.9 CMP%
2013 – 4,994 yds | 55 TD | 12 INT | 65.6 CMP%
2014 – 3,483 yds | 35 TD | 8 INT | 66.1 CMP%
For his efforts in both the 2013 and 2014 seasons, Adams was the runner-up for the Walter Payton Award (the FCS equivalent to the Heisman), a two-time winner of the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year, and both a first (2014) and second-team (2013) FCS all-American.
Let’s take a closer look at those stat lines. Notice anything similar? Those numbers are creeping up on Marcus Mariota-esque levels. Especially in regards to turnovers, those numbers show exceptional accuracy.
Speaking of accuracy, there is an upward trend that has yet to dip in completion percentage. Adams improved his accuracy every season at Eastern Washington and that was with his FCS-level receivers.
They were, however, exceptional FCS receivers — Cooper Kupp is a legit NFL prospect. Eastern runs an air raid-type offense; the entire offense ran through Adams and his arm. We know he can throw, and throw well, with an entire offense on his shoulders.
In 2015, Adams will have a new weapon to help him reach new heights — an explosive run game. At EWU in 2014, the leading running back only totaled 135 rushes. To help put that into perspective, Mariota totaled the same number of rushes in 2014 and Freeman almost doubled it with 252 rushes.
This is going to keep defenses more honest against Adams, who knows he won’t be relying on his arm every play. Adams averaged close to 40 pass attempts per game with the Eagles.
The common argument against this whole position is that Adams was playing against FCS defenses, and therefore he won’t have the same success against FBS teams.
That may be true if he had transferred to any other school but Oregon. The truth is, the Ducks offense might be the perfect fit for Adams and his skill set. The knock on Mariota heading into the draft was that his accuracy was unproven because Oregon’s receivers are always wide open.
Well, after watching every game the Ducks played last season, that statement isn’t entirely false.
Of course, there were times when Mariota dropped absolute dimes into tight windows, but a good amount of touchdowns were the result of amazing separation by receivers. Surprise, surprise — after watching lots of Eastern Washington game film and highlights from the last few years, we can say the same thing about Adams.
This similarity in the passing game should help ease the new QB’s transition into the Oregon offense, and was more than likely a big factor in how he won the starting job despite spending only two weeks in preseason camp with the Ducks.
In an interview about surprise Heisman contenders, Bucky Brooks of NFL.com said, “He is a perfect fit in the Ducks’ offense. Adams is not an explosive runner like Mariota, but he is a more accomplished pocket passer with enough elusiveness to make plays with his legs when the opportunity arises.”
Regarding his exposure to FBS opponents, Bryan Fischer of College Football 24/7 said of Adams, “Sure the jump up in competition is nothing to laugh at, but he’s proven in the past that he can play with Pac-12 teams while at Eastern Washington and he has the potential to put up video game numbers in the Ducks offense.”
Despite going 2-3 in five FBS contests, Adams has shown up to play every single time, and the largest point differential in an FBS matchup loss was a 21-33, 12-point loss to Toledo in 2013 in which he threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns.
Two weeks prior to the Toledo loss he lead EWU to a 49-46 barnburner win over Oregon State, so Adams already has a Pac-12 victory under his belt, as well as exposure to both Washington and Washington State — two losses by a combined 11 points.
Adams seems to thrive when the lights shine brightest — and starting for the No. 7 team in the country as the heir to a Heisman trophy winner who took his team to a championship game is about as bright as those lights can get.
If Adams can consistently put on the type of performances he put on display against those FBS teams in the past three years, you better believe he will find himself at the very least sitting with a few other finalists for college football’s most celebrated personal accolade.
Adams wasn’t able to grab the Walter Payton at Eastern, but with those shortcomings he was unknowingly setting up a better story by putting himself in position to grab the Heisman here in Eugene, instead.
Top Photo by John Sperry