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Last December the choice of which college to attend came down to two schools—Auburn and Mississippi State. Newton preferred Starkville because of his close relationship with Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen, who had been Newton's offensive coordinator at Florida. But Cecil thought his son should choose Auburn, which had an experienced offensive line (four starters were returning) and was only a two-hour drive from Atlanta. Newton let his father make the final decision, and a few days before Christmas, while sitting at the dinner table in his brother's house in Jacksonville, Cecil Sr. uttered two words that would radically alter the college football landscape: "It's Auburn."
As soon as Newton arrived on the Plains last January, he could be seen jogging around campus day and night—usually for 90-minute stretches. He lifted weights on the weekends by himself. Word soon spread among the Tigers' players that Newton, the onetime Florida Gator, the player with the tarnished reputation, was working like a man who knew he was out of second chances.
"Cam came in here, kept quiet and earned our respect by working hard," says senior defensive tackle Zach Clayton. "It didn't take long for him to win us over." It didn't take long for Newton to win the coaches over, either, as he was named the starter after spring practice.
He has been a near-perfect fit in offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's power-running offense. Though he's still a work in progress in the passing game—he struggles with his accuracy on down-the-field throws—Newton, like Vince Young, possesses a talent that can't be taught: the ability to turn a busted play into a positive one. It's his signature skill, and the main reason why he could become the first junior college transfer to win the Heisman.
"We didn't know how good a runner he was going to be, because in the spring he wasn't tackled," Malzahn says. "Then, in our first game, he went off and scored on a 71-yard touchdown run, and we were like, We've got something here."
NFL scouts have taken notice as well. One AFC scouting director compared Newton with a two-time Super Bowl--winning quarterback from the Steelers. "Newton is Big Ben--like," he said, referring to Ben Roethlisberger. "He has the size you look for in a quarterback to survive the physical beating, and the ability to avoid a lot of the big hits. I worry about his [passing] accuracy; he misses open receivers. But he's got the traits, other than that, of a winning NFL quarterback."
But the league will have to wait because he's Auburn's quarterback now. Minutes after Saturday's win Newton bounded around the field as if he were on a pogo stick and then leaped into the front row of the south stands, where he was engulfed by a mass of orange-clad fans who chanted "Heis-man! Heis-man! Heis-man!" As Cecil watched from across the field with a smile as big as Texas, it was clear:
His boy has become the man.