PHILADELPHIA -- The number they focused on was in the win column, and that grew because of their leadership and individual excellence.
There's no denying quarterbacks Vernon Adams Jr. of Eastern Washington, Justin Arias of Idaho State and John Robertson of Villanova were at the head of the class in the FCS this season. All three have been invited to the announcement of the 28th Walter Payton Award, given to the nation's outstanding player and considered the Heisman Trophy of the former Division I-AA level.
The winner will be announced at The Sports Network's FCS Awards Banquet and Presentation on Dec. 15 in Philadelphia. The winners of the Buck Buchanan Award (FCS outstanding defensive player), Jerry Rice Award (FCS freshman of the year) and Eddie Robinson Award (FCS coach of the year) also will be feted that night.
Awards voting, conducted by a national panel, is based on the regular season.
No doubt, an EWU No. 3 jersey would sell out. Adams has been a human highlight reel for three seasons, helping the Eagles to win the Big Sky Conference title each time. Adams, last year's Walter Payton Award runner-up, is back for another chance to win FCS outstanding player honors. When he redshirted in 2011, Adams watched as EWU quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell captured the Payton to put alongside the Eagles' 2010 national championship trophy.
"Bo Levi has both of them. That's what makes him one of the greats, if not the greatest quarterback, to ever come through Eastern Washington," Adams said. "My goal is to win a national championship. If the Walter Payton comes along, then it comes along. I tell guys all the time, that's a team award."
Ironically, what EWU has in Adams, the 6-foot, 200-pounder from Pasadena, California, was even more evident this season because the Eagles played without him for four games after he broke his right foot. All he did in his return against FCS power Montana on Nov. 8 was pass for 410 yards and four touchdowns. Adams, the Big Sky's all-time leader in touchdown passes, threw for 30 in only eight regular-season games, and he would have led the FCS in total offense per game (391.5 yards) if he had played one more game to qualify for the NCAA statistics.
The Bengals had won only nine games during the previous six years, but this season they went 8-4, tied for second place in the Big Sky and became nationally ranked for the first time since 2005. The 6-foot, 213-pound Arias was one of the chief architects of the turnaround, throwing for an FCS-high 4,076 yards and a school-record 38 touchdowns, while putting himself in the running for the Walter Payton Award, which honors the outstanding player in the FCS.
Idaho State trusted the vision of its coaching staff and seemed to find a higher level of achievement with each game. With the Bengals establishing a more consistent run game, Arias, their composed signal caller, was even more dangerous throwing downfield, and the offense accounted for 6,744 yards, which is a Big Sky record for a 12-game schedule.
"I think it's pretty special to come into a program and help rebuild it," said Arias, a former transfer who will earn a graduate degree in athletic administration in December. He's from Agoura Hills, California.
"Last year I did pretty well, had good stats, but we just didn't win. It's awesome to get those stats and win games. It was definitely a team effort; I couldn't have done it without the team, without the O-line, without my receivers. It was awesome to accomplish it together."
Two years later, Robertson has followed the order. One of three players eagerly awaiting the announcement of the 2014 Payton winner, the 6-1, 221-pound dual-threat Robertson has shredded opposing defenses throughout his redshirt junior campaign. He was named CAA Football offensive player of the week an incredible six times during the regular season, while Villanova went 10-2 with only a pair of one-point losses. He was then named the conference's offensive player of the year.
"One of the big differences from this year and last year was just the amount of weapons [on offense]," said Robertson, an economics major from Paramus, New Jersey. Last season, he placed ninth in the Payton Award voting for the FCS's outstanding player.
"As the quarterback, you need help out there, and they're really just giving it their all."
During the regular season, Robertson led the FCS in passing efficiency (182.99), throwing for 2,629 yards and 34 touchdown passes against only three interceptions. He rushed for 978 yards and nine touchdowns, and was responsible for 260 points -- the most in the nation.