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Thursday, October 21, 2010
The maturation of a quarterback

By Mark Schlabach
ESPN.com

AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton has led the Tigers to a 7-0 start and a No. 4 ranking in the Bowl Championship Series standings.

He's on the verge of breaking several Auburn and SEC records, and has become a front-runner to win the Heisman Trophy in his first season with the Tigers.

But if Newton had to do it all over again, he'd still be playing quarterback at SEC rival Florida, where he signed to play out of high school in 2007.

"If it was up to me, I would still want to be at Florida," Newton said earlier this week. "My heart is still at Florida because of the long-lasting relationships I have with my teammates there. Leaving them was the hardest part."

Cameron Newton
Cam Newton, left, was Tim Tebow's heir apparent before leaving Florida in 2008.

If not for an ill-advised decision Newton made during his sophomore season at Florida, he would probably still be playing for the Gators. In November 2008, Newton was arrested and charged with possession of a stolen laptop computer. According to the police report, when questioned about the theft, Newton threw the computer out the window of his dorm room and into a Dumpster below.

Newton said he purchased the computer for about $500 from a man selling electronics out of the trunk of his car. He said that while he knew in the back of his mind something was wrong, he needed to replace his computer, which had been recently damaged.

Who knew then that Newton's lapse in judgment would drastically alter the SEC's balance of power two years later?

After playing last season at Blinn College, a two-year junior college in Brenham, Texas, Newton transferred to Auburn in January and won the team's starting quarterback job during spring practice.

With Newton running offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's high-powered attack, the Tigers lead the SEC in scoring (40.7 points per game), rushing (283.7 yards) and total offense (481.1 yards) going into Saturday's showdown against No. 6 LSU at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Meanwhile, Florida is mired in its first three-game losing streak since 1988. The Gators have struggled to replace former All-America quarterback Tim Tebow, who helped them win national championships in 2006 and 2008.

Newton, 21, insists he left Florida on his own after felony criminal charges were dropped. He injured his ankle at the beginning of his sophomore season and fell behind Tebow and current Gators starter John Brantley III on the team's depth chart. When Tebow announced he was coming back to school for his senior season in 2009, Newton decided he had to find another home.

Gators coach Urban Meyer has also said Newton wasn't pushed out of Florida.

"I feel like Coach Meyer had no decision in me leaving," Newton said. "I wasn't kicked off the team. I won't trash his name and he won't trash my name. Everyone thought Tebow was going to leave [after his junior season]. Coach Meyer thought Tebow was going to leave and he wanted me back."

Instead, Newton spent last season playing far away from college football's spotlight, at tiny Blinn, which is located about halfway between Austin and Houston. Newton helped lead the Buccaneers to a junior college national championship, and said his season in Texas helped him mature.

"I think I went through so many stages mentally," Newton said. "I went through a miserable time as far as me being humbled. I went through a period where I was devastated and depressed. I didn't know where my career was going and if I even wanted to play football anymore. I think that was really my resurrection."

Cameron Newton and Gene Chizik
Gene Chizik, right, landed a talented player and leader in Newton.

Newton said he spent many nights talking on the telephone to his father, Cecil Newton, who is bishop of a handful of churches in Georgia.

"A year earlier, I was playing at Florida and hanging out with Tim Tebow, Joe Haden and Brandon Spikes," Newton said. "I would Google my teammates [at Blinn College] and nothing would come up."

It didn't take Newton long to realize he was as anonymous as his teammates at Blinn, too. Few people knew Newton was a former prep All-American from Westlake High School in Atlanta, or that he was once considered Tebow's heir apparent at Florida.

"Everybody was from Texas," Newton said. "During the summer or weekends, everyone would go home. I'd be the only one there and it was a ghost town. That's when I would think about what I really wanted to do with my life."

Before Newton's only season at Blinn in 2009, Buccaneers coach Brad Franchione -- the son of former Alabama and Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione -- required his players to paint the bleachers of the school's crumbling stadium. For several weeks, Newton and his teammates labored through the sweltering Texas heat to finish the job.

"It was hot and depressing," Newton said. "I told myself, 'Always remember this feeling and it will get you through the tough times.'"

There haven't been many tough times for Newton at Auburn. Tigers coach Gene Chizik said he contacted former Gators defensive coordinator Charlie Strong to inquire about Newton's character and work habits, and didn't offer Newton a scholarship until after meeting with the player and his parents in their hometown of College Park, Ga.

"I was 100 percent convinced after meeting him and his family that it was a no-brainer," Chizik said. "He's a great young man. I believe in second chances if a young man's heart is right. If his heart isn't right, I don't want him. But if his heart is right, I want him at Auburn."

It didn't take Chizik and Malzahn long to realize that Newton is a pretty special player, too. At 6-foot-6 and nearly 260 pounds, he's a mismatch for most defenses. Through seven games, Newton leads the SEC in rushing (122.9 yards per game), pass efficiency (180.5 rating) and total offense (305.4 yards). He's completed 65.6 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions.

Newton is on pace to become the first SEC player -- and only the eighth in major college football history -- to pass for 2,000 yards and run for 1,000 yards in the same season. With two more touchdowns, he'll break 1971 Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan's school record of 26 touchdowns scored in a season.

"Physically, there was no doubt he could do the job," Malzahn said. "What I've been most impressed with is his leadership and how he handles his teammates. He gets them to raise their level of play and understands how to lead in the right way."

Chizik, who was Texas' co-defensive coordinator when it won the 2006 BCS national championship, said Newton reminds him of former Longhorns quarterback Vince Young.

"He's got some definite similarities to Vince," Chizik said. "He's bigger than Vince. He's as athletic as Vince. He's as competitive as Vince. When the game is on the line, they both want the ball in their hands. That's a neat thing."

Newton said he'll never again take his opportunities for granted. He knows how quickly his life can change.

The two days he spent in a Florida jail are an indelible memory.

"The hard part was I never thought someone like me would end up in jail," Newton said. "I was leaving the jail and saw the look my mother had on her face, just the disbelief. I never wanted to put my mother in that position again."

Chizik said Newton's past has helped him appreciate what's happening to him now.

"I think that's true about a lot of people," Chizik said. "I think we're all a product of our past."

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. He co-authored Bobby Bowden's memoir, "Called To Coach," which was published by Simon & Schuster. The book is available in stores and can be ordered here. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.