Auburn QB Cameron Newton ready to make most of second chance
The former Tim Tebow backup left Florida for juco amid a cloud of controversy
Desire to start led the 6-foot-6, 247-pound QB to Auburn over Mississippi State
The Tigers should rise quickly in 2010 behind their new dual-threat signal-caller
AUBURN, Ala. -- The second time around, Cameron Newton might have been the worst official visitor in America.
College football players love official visit weekends, mostly because they give them the opportunity to show off their school's nightlife to wide-eyed recruits. Newton, a quarterback who made his second trip through the recruiting process after transferring from Florida and spending a season at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, wasn't worried about beer selection or the average skirt length at a given bar when he visited campuses in late 2009. He only cared about the depth chart.
On one visit during his second recruitment, Newton's host couldn't believe his ears when his guest declined a night of shenanigans to do a little light reading. "I was ready to sleep," Newton said. "I didn't go out. I got the media guide and just looked the whole night." Newton declined to name the school that had its social scene trumped by its two-deep depth chart. He also made no apologies for his antisocial behavior. "This second time, it's a business move," Newton said. "There's no doubt. There are no mistakes. I can't transfer now. If I transfer this time, it's Division II."
The 6-foot-6, 247-pound Newton considered himself lucky to have a second chance at a major college football career. The junior -- who left Florida amid unpleasant circumstances -- wanted to start immediately, so he gave more weight to schools with uncertain quarterback situations. To further narrow his options, Newton used some simple logic. "I'm looking to go to the national championship," he said. "Whoever the SEC champion is, most likely they're going to be playing for the national championship. I was looking for the team that would put me in the best situation to play for the national championship."
That's how Newton -- who also considered Arizona, Mississippi State and Oklahoma -- wound up at Auburn. The Atlanta native spent the spring learning coordinator Gus Malzahn's hurry-up offense, and Malzahn and Auburn coach Gene Chizik rewarded Newton by naming him the starter shortly after spring practice ended. That couldn't have come as much of a surprise; in the days leading up to the spring game, the Tigers were abuzz about their new teammate. "He's an explosive player," tailback Onterio McCalebb said. "He does a lot of things that'll help us out in the long run. He'll perform well in front of a crowd. I'm just anxious to see what he'll do."
McCalebb and everyone else will have to wait until September to see Newton completely unleashed. In Auburn's spring game, he threw only eight passes. With everyone in the SEC checking the ESPNU game broadcast to see Newton, Auburn's coaches didn't want to give away too much.
But Newton's talent is no secret. Since he arrived at Florida in 2007, Newton's combination of size, speed and arm strength has tantalized coaches. But he only threw 10 passes in 2007 as Tim Tebow's backup, and he redshirted in 2008 after suffering an ankle injury. It was in November of that year that Newton's most infamous scramble made national headlines. University of Florida police officers came to his dorm room to retrieve a laptop that had been reported stolen by another student. When the officers entered the room, according to their report, they found the laptop in question, but it had been painted black and had Cam Newton written in white on the lid. Newton asked for some privacy to make a phone call. When officers returned, the laptop was gone. They later found it behind a Dumpster below Newton's third-floor room.
Newton seemed almost relieved last month to explain the situation. A lot of people don't know the truth, he said. In the aftermath of his arrest, many headlines suggested Newton had stolen the laptop. Reporters and bloggers alike made the logical leap that Newton had taken the laptop from another student and then tossed the evidence when the police discovered the perpetrator. They were half right, Newton said.
It is true that Newton asked police for a moment to call attorney Huntley Johnson -- Gainesville's version of Matlock -- and then disposed of the laptop. "I panicked," said Newton, who completed a pre-trial diversion program to get his charges dropped. "That was the stupidest thing I could have did."
But, Newton said, he did not steal the laptop. He bought it. And the story of how he came into possession of the laptop should make it abundantly clear why so many hotels post signs warning guests not to hang clothes from the overhead fire sprinklers.
That's precisely how Newton's trouble began. He said he had placed dress clothes on a hangar for a class presentation. Before he had a chance to put them on, teammate Deonte Thompson visited with his baby daughter. Fill in any scene from Daddy Day Care that you'd like, but the upshot is that a distracted Newton hung his clothes from the fire sprinkler.
"It was like Old Faithful," Newton said. "From the third floor down, it flooded everything. But it started in my room. My laptop was destroyed. My TV was destroyed. All my clothes. All my shoes. Everything was destroyed."
On every college football team, somebody knows a guy who knows a guy who sells stuff out of his trunk. Newton said he was introduced to one such gentleman. The budding entrepreneur asked Newton if he needed clothing. "I'm 6-6, 240 and I wear a size 14 shoe," Newton said. "There was nothing I could wear."
But, Newton said, he did need a laptop. "Oh, I've got a laptop," Newton remembered the man saying. "The price that he gave for it," Newton said, "it was really too good to be true."
Indeed it was.
So Newton paid $120 and took possession of a computer valued at more than $1,000. He knows how stupid it sounds now. He also understands now that buying stolen property isn't much better than stealing. "Knowing what I know now, would I have done it? No," he said. "I wouldn't even think twice about doing it. But I did it. I made my mistake." Police found the computer because Newton, thinking he'd bought it free and clear, used his university account to log on to the Internet. After several days and multiple logins, police swarmed Newton's dorm room. "I'd never seen so many police officers," he said.
Contrary to popular belief, Gators coach Urban Meyer didn't immediately throw Newton off the team. Newton said he'd be forever grateful to Meyer for allowing him to finish the fall 2008 semester, which allowed him to transfer. And if Newton wasn't already out the door, he certainly was when Tebow announced he would return for his senior season to a wall of cheers at the Gators' national title celebration in January 2009. Newton, already facing a climb to get back even with fellow 2007 signee John Brantley -- who backed up Tebow in 2008 with Newton injured -- saw the writing on the wall. "When Tebow announced he was coming back," Newton said. "I put two and two together."
So Newton went to Blinn, where he had few distractions. "The only thing they had was a Wal-Mart," he said, "and they'd just gotten that." Newton threw for 2,833 yards and 22 touchdowns and ran for 655 yards and 16 touchdowns as he led the Buccaneers to the junior college national title. "There were times at Florida that I just did immature things," Newton said. "I took a lot of stuff for granted. Being at Blinn, it humbled me. I thank God he put me in that situation. I was hard-headed, young and dumb."
Despite his newfound wisdom, Newton still didn't know his next step. He narrowed his choices to Auburn and Mississippi State, where former Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen was the head coach. "For a long time, I thought I was going to Mississippi State," Newton said. "You could just see the great things he had in store for Mississippi State. There were a lot of guys buying into Coach Mullen's philosophy. Me coming here was probably the hardest thing, but you walk by faith and not by sight."
Newton said his parents helped him decide on Auburn, where he would have to digest Malzahn's offense and beat out three other quarterbacks to win the starting job. The offense, it turned out, wasn't so tough. "From the outside in, it looks very hard," Newton said. "But when you get to the core of the offense, it's pretty much surrounded by the basic things. It's not as hard as people think -- or as I thought it was going to be."
The offense, Newton said, relies more on timing than complexities. Newton had more trouble trying to unlearn some of the traits he'd picked up at Florida than he did learning the plays at Auburn. Newton explained that Malzahn and Mullen ask their quarterbacks to read option plays in different ways. In Florida's offense, the quarterback takes a step and reads the defensive end. At Auburn, there is no step. "If I take that step now, it's going to throw the running back off," Newton said. "I've got to pinch myself to remind myself."
Newton should be careful talking about the option, lest people start thinking of him as some battering ram. Newton is quick to point out to anyone who inquires about his style that he would rather throw than run. "I'm blessed with the God-given talent to be able to run, but do I want to run? No," Newton said. "I just want to sit back in the pocket and do what quarterbacks do."
Malzahn wants his quarterback to do both. "We expect our quarterback to be able to drop back in the pocket and throw timely passes," Malzahn said. "At the same time, we do some zone read." Of course, Malzahn hasn't had a quarterback who looks like a rush end at first glance.
However Newton is used, he'll be happy as long as it helps him reach his ultimate goal. Getting named the starter only validates that he made the correct business decision. The Tigers will start the season on the periphery of the top 25, but their schedule will allow them to rise quickly. Newton understands people may still judge him for his past mistakes, but he's grateful to Auburn for giving him a second chance. In turn, Newton hopes to give Auburn an opportunity to return to the top of the SEC. After a spring in the Loveliest Village on the Plains, Newton believes he can.
"We've got a chance," he said, "to do something great."
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