Their numbers were so jaw-dropping that no one raised an eyebrow Tuesday when Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams and wide receiver Cooper Kupp won two of the biggest awards in the Big Sky Conference.
Both were unanimous selections, Adams as the Offensive Player of the Year and Kupp as the Freshman of the Year.
Throw in a third-straight first-team selection for cornerback T.J. Lee III and the outright Big Sky Conference football championship earned last weekend, and it’s shaping up to be a pretty good bye week.
Better yet, Tuesday’s practice – without pads, no less – was the last before the Thanksgiving break. After a few days’ rest, the third-ranked Eagles will get down to the familiar business of the playoffs; they will play Northern Arizona or South Dakota State on Dec. 7 at Roos Field.
“We just have to keep climbing the mountain,” said Adams, a redshirt sophomore who already has set the league record for total offense (4,550) and passing touchdowns (46), and is on pace to set the Big Sky record for passing efficiency (185.7, including a completion percentage of .664 and 4,059 yards).
Adams said he’s 18-3 as a starter mainly because he’s taking what opposing defenses are giving him, while staying in the pocket longer and curing a case of “happy feet” that plagued his freshman year.
“More than anything, Vernon’s done a good job of letting the game slow down,” said coach Beau Baldwin, who may get some hardware of his own when the conference announces its Coach of the Year.
Adams has thrived in spite of – perhaps because of – a new crop of receivers to replace Brandon Kaufman, Nick Edwards and Greg Herd. The biggest revelation has been Kupp, a redshirt freshman from Yakima who ended the regular season as the FCS leader with 18 touchdown catches for the season.
Kupp has caught at least one TD in all 12 games, and is the favorite to win the Jerry Rice Award given by The Sports Network to the top freshman in FCS.
For the season, Kupp has 77 catches for 1,378 yards to break the FCS record for receiving yards by a freshman. He is just four catches from the FCS freshman record for catches.
“I feel like I set high goals for myself,” Kupp said. “But I’m not surprised because we have a great team, a great quarterback and a great line.”
Lee, a senior from West Seattle, is only the third Eagle to win a trio of first-team Big Sky honors, and the first defender to do so.
Lee now has 238 tackles (16th in school history), four interceptions, 23 passes broken up and 3 1/2 sacks in his 46-game career (32 starts). He owns sole possession of the school record for most career forced fumbles with seven, and his 23 passes broken up ranks seventh.
This year, with the Eagles’ safety ranks thinned by injury, it was Lee who made the switch.
“He’s ferocious,” Baldwin said. “He has cover skills, he can blitz, he can force and recover fumbles and he can flat-out tackle.”
The only other players in school history to be honored on the first team three times are offensive lineman Harold Fox (1992-93-94) and return specialist Lamont Brightful (1999-2000-01).
Center Ashton Miller and special teams standout Bo Schuetzle also were named to the first team.