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Vernon Adams could be next in line of small-school NFL QBs

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Elaine Thompson/Associated Press
Eastern Washington's Vernon Adams threw seven TD passes vs. Washington on Sept. 6.

It's well established that a quarterback doesn't need to be from a major college program to find success in the NFL.

The list of QBs that rose from outside college football's power conferences -- or even Division I in some cases -- within the past decade or so includes Joe Flacco (Delaware), Colin Kaepernick (Nevada), Ben Roethlisberger (Miami Ohio) and Tony Romo (Eastern Illinois). The latest signal-caller trying to follow their lead is New England Patriots rookie Jimmy Garoppolo (Eastern Illinois), a second-round pick earlier this year who threw his first career touchdown pass Monday night in relief of Tom Brady.

Who could be next in the pipeline from the less-heralded ranks?

My list starts with Eastern Washington's Vernon Adams Jr.

Adams has put up huge numbers on the road against top competition, racking up 518 total yards (411 passing, 107 rushing) and six touchdowns (four passing, two rushing) in leading an upset of Oregon State to start last season, and he threw for 475 yards and seven touchdowns in nearly upsetting Washington earlier this season.

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His production is monstrous. He threw for nearly 5,000 yards and had 55 TD passes in 15 games last season. He already has 1,803 passing yards, 20 TDs passes and just three interceptions through five games this season.

Adams, a redshirt junior, comes from the FCS ranks and lacks ideal size at 6-foot, 200 pounds, but I know this: He's a master playmaker and a big-time leader. And in the NFL, we're getting less concerned about ideal size and more interested in whether a quarterback is a proven playmaker. Johnny Manziel certainly didn't fit the profile of a prototypical NFL QB, but he still went No. 22 overall in this year's draft.

That's why I'm eager to watch Adams develop. If he keeps this up, I think he'll win the Walter Payton Award this season, which is the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. Garoppolo won the award last season.

Adams is far from alone, though, in the pipeline. I'm on record saying BYU's Taysom Hill deserves to be considered among the top quarterbacks in college football. By no means is this list complete, but here are a few other QBs from outside the "Power Five" conferences that have caught my eye:

East Carolina's Shane Carden

Carden has led the Pirates to a No. 21 ranking in the CFB 24/7 Top 25 Power Rankings. He fueled an upset of Virginia Tech and a 70-41 blowout of North Carolina in consecutive weeks. The senior is fourth in the FBS in passing yards per game (367.3) and has the attention of NFL scouts.

Marshall's Rakeem Cato

Cato, a senior, is on the verge of breaking Russell Wilson's NCAA record for consecutive games with a TD pass (Cato is at 36; the record is 38). He's the latest intriguing QB prospect from a school that produced first-rounders Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich. Like Adams, Cato lacks ideal size at 6-1, 176, but, also like Adams, he finds ways to make plays.

Nevada's Cody Fajardo

Fajardo, the successor to Colin Kaepernick at Nevada, is a dynamic playmaker with a big arm and the ability to make plays with his feet. Earlier this season he joined Kaepernick as one of three Wolf Pack players to exceed 10,000 total yards in his career.

Colorado State's Garrett Grayson

With Grayson at the helm, the Rams knocked off Colorado in Week 1 and Boston College -- a team that beat USC earlier this season -- last week. Grayson suffered a bruised shoulder at BC, but hopefully he won't miss any time. The senior is emerging as an intriguing pocket passer in his second season as a full-time starter.

Houston's John O'Korn

O'Korn is only a sophomore, but he's quickly worked his way onto the radar of NFL scouts. He was the American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year last season and threw for 3,117 yards and 28 touchdowns. O'Korn had some early-season struggles this year -- he already has thrown six interceptions after throwing 10 all of last season -- but he has plenty of time to continue to develop and hone his craft.

Follow Charles Davis on Twitter @CFD22.

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