Why Vernon Adams can't fill Marcus Mariota's shoes
Vernon Adams Jr. has the unenviable task of replacing Marcus Mariota as quarterback of the Oregon Ducks. Mariota was by a distance our best-graded quarterback a year ago, thanks largely to the kind of opportunities that the Oregon offense can manufacture for its passers. An Oregon quarterback needs to have a few key traits to be successful, but they certainly don’t need to be elite to put up big numbers and dominate many of the teams they will see in NCAA play each year.
The system is designed to stretch a defense with a combination of the running threat and the passing game. By threatening the read-option at the mesh point most snaps, you essentially buy yourself an extra man on offense compared to the other side of the ball. With the line and running back heading in one direction, the quarterback threatening to pull the ball and head in the other, and the added menace of receivers split wide to the far side of the defense, you have a triple-threat scenario that usually leads to one of those three options resulting in a mis-match.
If a quarterback in that system can make the right reads regularly, they should have success almost by default because of how hard it is to cover everything. This is why this system and ones like it are so common throughout the college landscape. One of the big reasons it hasn’t translated to the pros is because of the hash marks, which are much wider in college than the NFL.
The width of college hash marks opens up the wide side of the field to give receivers a lot of space to work in. NFL defenses never have such a massive open side to have to contend with and so the stress placed on that side of the defense with the stretch is lower. Defenders have a greater chance of being able to hedge between the options and cover everything.
The system essentially boosts quarterbacks and makes them look good. This offense regularly creates wide open passes by ensuring receivers are single-covered at best and the guys covering them have half an eye on other things.
You can practically guarantee quarterbacks in this system will grade well because it is such an aid to their play, and yet over his first two starting games Adams has graded negatively in each — -1.8 against Eastern Washington (not exactly a powerhouse defense) and -2.5 against Michigan State.
Adams possesses flaws that Mariota did not have in the same offense. The first is that he is much more of a “see it” kind of passer. He doesn’t like putting the ball in the air before he sees a guy that is open, eschewing guys who will come open because they aren’t at the point he wants to put the ball in the air. In the NFL it’s extremely difficult to get by without that anticipation, but even in college it will cost you big plays.
He also allows himself to get put off passes if he sees someone anywhere between the ball and the target. This offense is about getting the ball to its skill position players in a space where they can do damage. Sometimes that will involve needing to get the pass over an unblocked defender, but on at least two occasions against Michigan State, Adams pulled the ball down rather than put it over a defender to hit his receiver in space. On both occasions it killed the play, while his intended target was open for a potentially significant gain.
Here is the first example:
This was 3rd and 3. His man is wide open to pick up the first, and the player that spooks him shouldn’t be any kind of factor in the pass. Yes, he was directly between him and his receiver, but if you’re not capable of getting the ball over the defender to hit the receiver then you’re not going to have much success in this game.
Later on, with the Ducks deep in the red zone looking to peg the score back, the same thing happened. This time he had Royce Freeman open early, but didn’t like the fact that he would need to put some touch on the pass to clear the defensive end, so he balked, tucked the ball and ended up needing to throw it away.
Too often Adams will spook himself from a clean pocket and take off. This was something unfairly thrown at Mariota last year, but he actually worked the pocket a lot longer and more consistently than Adams before bailing and trying to improvise. Rather than work through his progression and find the open guy, Adams tends to take off if he can’t see somebody open early. There were multiple occasions against the Spartans where you would find open receivers with their arms up trying to catch his attention at the moment he decides to bail on the pocket and try to make something happen with his legs.
These aren’t unusual flaws, and they are shared by many spread-offense quarterbacks. What made Mariota great was that he didn’t suffer from them — at least not often. What is perhaps the biggest issue for Adams right now is basic inaccuracy.
The Oregon offense will give you big-time play opportunities. As we mentioned earlier, it manufactures one-on-one opportunities for receivers and plenty of these come deep down the field. Last season Mariota was one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the nation on deep passes, scoring 18 touchdowns on plays of 20+ air yards to only two interceptions. Against Michigan State Adams missed multiple deep shots, and they were important plays.
Early in the game his first interception came because of an underthrown deep pass.
It didn’t look too bad from the initial broadcast angle – appearing to be more a case of the receiver just failing at the catch point – but if you watch the replays you can see just how much he needs to adjust back to the underthrown ball, whereas a well-thrown pass could have seen him go the distance for a score.
Later on with the Ducks trailing and needing to score he again missed an open receiver deep, this time with an overthrow that should have been an easy touchdown. These are the kinds of errors that quarterbacks in this offense can’t make. They are opportunities that passers in other systems don’t get handed to them — and they must be taken advantage of when they arise.
However, after all of that, there are still things to like about Adams. He has the athleticism you want in this system, and there were picture-perfect plays like the one below where he did stay in the pocket and deliver a strike.
The ability is there for him to become a better player going forward, but right now he is the player that Mariota critics claimed he was pre-draft. The negative, straw-man caricature of a system quarterback who was too quick to bail on the pocket, not able to manage the pocket well enough and not accurate enough on easy passes to succeed at the NFL level was an unfair work of fiction when it came to Mariota. Right now, however, that image defines Vernon Adams Jr. as he struggles to fill those boots.