Tigers follow Cam Newton's lead
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- We all know the athletic figure that Auburn junior quarterback Cam Newton has cut in the 2010 football season. He is the best college football player in the country. He runs faster than the big guys. He runs bigger than the fast guys. He leads the nation in passing efficiency. He is the reason that navy blue and burnt orange are the predominant colors in the Valley of the Sun this week.
The Tigers are playing in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game because Newton turned down Mississippi State and Oklahoma and came to Auburn. But the athletic prowess of the 6-foot-6, 250-pound native of College Park, Ga., is not the only reason that Auburn is here. Newton's ability has cast such a large shadow that it has obscured another facet of his jewel of a performance.
The position of quarterback is earned not only by a player's physical performance but also by how he leads. It is easy to take for granted that Newton is a leader on the Tigers.
"He's got the ability, once he gets in the huddle, that all eyes are on him, and whatever he says, they're going to do," Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said.
Yet a year ago, none of his teammates even knew him. Newton had just joined the team. There is no Heisman for team leadership. There is no award for recognizing how a player can come in off the street, unpack his gear and almost immediately get a team to not only accept him, but follow him. Maybe there should be.
Newton already had transferred once. He went to Blinn (Texas) Junior College for the 2009 season and led his team to the juco national championship. Moving to Auburn was a little more complicated.
"Honestly, that's something that either can be a good thing or a bad thing," Newton said Wednesday at a news conference at the Camelback Inn. "A person that has so much status going into a program, everybody already has their thoughts about it. 'Who was this? He probably thinks he is going to get this and that.'"
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Senior offensive tackle Lee Ziemba feels ownership of the Tigers. He has started all 51 games of his college career.
"You're trying to figure someone out when you first meet him," Ziemba said. "Every little thing they do is critiqued. As soon as he got here, it took him no time at all to become one of [us]."
During winter workouts, Newton so impressed his offensive teammates in the weight room that they named him -- a quarterback -- to a five-man tug-of-war team to take on the defense. The offense won.
"For me, I really wanted to go into Auburn and earn everything that I got with the team respect, trying to be that leader on this football team," Newton said. "And I knew it was a price I had to pay."
Ziemba remembers seeing Newton over the summer. Players put a great deal of stock in how hard a teammate works when there's no coach forcing him to do it.
"He was in the rain, throwing passes on the weekend when we were at the lake," Ziemba said. "He was dragging receivers out there with him. That kind of work ethic prepared our guys to follow him."
Newton plays football the way George Clooney acts. He tosses it off with such ease that you don't see what it took to get there. He puts in his time in video study. He searches other quarterbacks for clues, for pieces he can make his own.
"If I feel there's a trait that I don't have in my game," Newton said, "I'm going to try to take it from another quarterback that I saw and try to apply it to my own."
A trait that Newton doesn't have? Cooking a seven-course French dinner? Balancing the federal budget? Help us out here.
"You look at the Peyton Mannings, the Tom Bradys, the Andrew Lucks, the Jake Lockers, Terrelle Pryor," Newton said. "All these guys have something different they bring to the table. I'm a fan of all those guys. I'm continuously trying to see what they do, what makes them that good player or that great player and apply it to my own [game]."
The coaches saw that work ethic. They took note of how the players responded to Newton.
"They really believe in him," Malzahn said. "That's really one of the main reasons he won the job. In the spring, we saw that. They really trust him. So his leadership is definitely a big reason we're here."
In the span of 12 months, Newton has gone from juco transfer to national figure.
"I tried to go shopping yesterday," Newton said, "and I felt as if it was a memo to everybody that Cam Newton is coming. It is kind of crazy."
He has survived an NCAA investigation into his eligibility that made his father infamous. After winning the Heisman, Newton read the Top Ten List on "The Late Show with David Letterman." Jay Leno wants Newton on the "Tonight Show" next week if the Tigers win. GQ wants some time in the spring. The NFL beckons.
Newton has handled it all. That's what a leader does.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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