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KENTUCKY COACHES COULD SEE MORGAN NEWTON TAKING OWNERSHIP OF HIS TEAM with each visit to their offices in the spring. The Wildcats' quarterback frequently could be found in the office of student assistant coach Andre Woodson, watching game film or discussing workouts. He was eager to correct mechanical flaws, to study defensive reads and to improve his understanding of Kentucky's pro-style offense. It was a level of focus the coaches were not accustomed to seeing from the junior.
For two seasons Newton had missed opportunities to take command, and last year he rarely got off the bench. The coaches could see exceptional raw material ready to mold: He is a potent combination of size (6' 4", 235 pounds), mobility and passing ability who churned out 3,602 yards of offense and 48 touchdowns while a senior at Carmel (Ind.) High.
But after guiding the Wildcats to five wins in eight starts as a freshman in 2009 (when veteran Mike Hartline was injured), Newton's laissez-faire approach to drills and a lack of comfort with the offense stymied any progress and cost him the starting role last season. As a sophomore he completed just four passes in four appearances before starting—and struggling—in January's BBVA Compass Bowl, a 27--10 loss to Pittsburgh.
"Morgan had the blessing of coming in and playing as a freshman," says offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. "But it's also a curse. If you have too much success early, it's easy for those guys to not ever learn how to prepare."
The coaches needed to make Newton understand the importance of that preparation. And by coincidence the perfect instructor arrived for spring practices: Woodson, a former Kentucky quarterback who returned to school in January to finish his undergraduate degree and explore a coaching career. Woodson could relate to Newton's struggles because they mirrored his own. He too had stumbled through his sophomore season (in '05), during which he threw as many interceptions as touchdowns (six). In danger of losing his starting job Woodson poured himself into practice, studying the Wildcats' offense and intensifying his efforts in both off-season workouts and practice drills. His turnaround was remarkable: An SEC-leading 7,224 passing yards and 71 touchdown passes over his final two seasons.
Woodson drew upon his experience while working with Newton. The two examined the challenges of the Kentucky offense—including how to make proper defensive reads—and discussed the importance of leadership. They also drilled fundamentals, adjusting Newton's balance and follow-through, which improved his passing accuracy.
"He's kind of walked those steps before," Newton says of his mentor. "He knows what we go through."
The changes have been promising. Newton threw for 256 yards and three touchdowns in the spring game, and coach Joker Phillips says he sees improvement in the speed with which the quarterback recognizes blitzes and coverages and how he responds to breakdowns in protection.
Now Kentucky coaches are wondering if Newton can continue to parallel Woodson's career and follow his two years of struggles with a spectacular finish of his own.