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USC will have to stop Oregon’s elusive Vernon Adams Jr.

Quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. (3) and running back Royce Freeman (21) have the Oregon offense clicking on all cylinders as the season comes to a conclusion.

Quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. (3) and running back Royce Freeman (21) have the Oregon offense clicking on all cylinders as the season comes to a conclusion.

(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

Growing up in Pasadena, Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. imagined playing football for USC or UCLA.

He had an interlocking “SC” tattooed on his right arm, which he recently told Oregon reporters stood for Southern California — the area, not the school.

Playing for UCLA in the Rose Bowl also presented enormous appeal.

“I would have loved going to SC or UCLA,” he said during a phone interview this week. “Especially UCLA. My mom literally lives five minutes walking distance from the Rose Bowl.

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“That would have been awesome to play there half the season in front of Pasadena. But everything happens for a reason.”

Bypassed by major schools, Adams went from Mission Hills Alemany High to Eastern Washington, where he starred for three seasons before leaving for Oregon as a graduate transfer.

The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Adams has come back from a broken finger to lead the Ducks to four consecutive victories heading into Saturday’s game against USC at Autzen Stadium.

USC, 7-3 overall, 5-2 in Pac-12 Conference games, can win the South Division by defeating Oregon and UCLA. Oregon (7-3, 5-2) still has an outside shot at winning the North.

To take its first step, USC must neutralize Adams, who led the Ducks to a 38-36 victory over Stanford last week.

Oregon’s high-powered offense is averaging 41.8 points and 532.6 yards a game. Adams has passed for 16 touchdowns, with five interceptions, and has also rushed for two touchdowns.

USC interim Coach Clay Helton said Adams, who passed for 12 touchdowns in the last four games, “makes the whole thing tick.”

“He’s got the ability to escape the pass rush and still keep his eyes downfield,” Helton said. “You saw that in the Stanford game. He had some big-time explosion passes just keeping the ball alive and finding men downfield.”

Watching Adams on tape can be maddening for a coach scheming against him. USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said all can be correctly in place leading up to a freeze-frame. And then Adams improvises.

“He runs the offense but he’s also got that kind of freestyling way about him,” Wilcox said. “He’s not a cowboy who’s not playing the offense, but he’s got the ability to make plays.… It’s all good, and then you push play — and it’s not all good.”

Several USC players who grew up in Pasadena know all about Adams.

Receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. attended elementary school with him, played against him in youth football leagues, and eventually followed his good friend, known as “Skeeter,” to Alemany.

Mitchell, a third-year sophomore, said he and Adams share the same tattoo artist and that Adams got the “SC” tattoo years ago. Mitchell said all of his friends were USC fans.

Asked about Adams’ tattoo, Mitchell broke out laughing.

“I never asked him specifically what it was about, but deep down…. Who didn’t want to come to USC?” he said. “Either way, he’s at where he needs to be.”

USC senior cornerback Kevon Seymour, also a boyhood friend, said there would be no surprises playing against Adams.

“We have to plaster receivers because we know he can make plays with his feet,” Seymour said.

Adams showed most of the same skills at Alemany, but scholarship offers from major programs did not materialize.

Oregon Coach Mark Helfrich said Ducks coaches were aware of Adams. But Oregon had a pretty good quarterback recruit coming in the same year, Marcus Mariota.

“So we had a kid who we thought had a chance,” Helfrich said of the record-setting 2014 Heisman Trophy winner.

Adams redshirted his first season at Eastern Washington and then led the Eagles to three consecutive Big Sky Conference titles. He twice was runner-up for the Walter Payton Award, presented to the top player in the Football Championship Subdivision.

Friends and family members often pondered how Adams would fare at a Power 5 Conference school, but Adams said he did not get caught up in speculation.

“They always looked at me and thought it was like, ‘Dang, you could be playing at big school,’” he said. “But I always felt like I didn’t get recruited to a big school for a reason. I guess I wasn’t good enough.”

After three seasons of success, and with a chance to earn his degree looming, Adams looked to step up.

“I was just thinking like what if the NFL scouts are saying, ‘OK, this kid is pretty good; he’s got good numbers and stuff like that, but he’s doing it against smaller competition. Now what if he’s playing at the Pac-12 level every single week, where the Pac-12 puts out a gang of NFL guys every year?’” Adams said.

Adams explored the graduate-transfer option — which Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson had popularized with his move from North Carolina State to Wisconsin — and he was thrilled that Oregon, UCLA and others expressed interest.

Adams said the decision came down to remaining at Eastern Washington or transferring to Oregon.

His arrival in Eugene was unexpectedly delayed because he needed to retake a class during summer to fulfill graduation requirements. The late arrival set him back.

“I didn’t really know the playbook until I really got into camp,” he said.

Adams was still learning the system when he suffered a broken finger during the opener against his old school, Eastern Washington. He had two passes intercepted in a loss against Michigan State, did not play against Georgia State, and came out of the game during a lopsided loss to Utah.

“I couldn’t throw the ball like I wanted to or how I can,” he said. “I told my coach, ‘I’m going to sit out till I’m 99.5% or 100%.’”

Adams did not play in a victory over Colorado or a loss against Washington State. But the time away helped him better understand the system.

“I sat back and watched Taylor Alie and Jeff Lockie run the offense how it’s supposed to be run — how they went through their reads,” Adams said. “It really helped me get my reads down.”

Since returning, Adams has led the Ducks to victories over Washington, Arizona State, California and Stanford.

Now he is looking forward to playing against the Trojans, rattling off the names of nearly a dozen USC players he considers friends.

“I’m cool with all those guys,” he said. “It’s going to be fun playing against them.”

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein


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