Cameron Newton enjoys second chance
There's not a defensive player alive who likes a prima donna as his quarterback.
So Auburn senior linebacker Josh Bynes was on alert back in January when Cameron Newton arrived on campus as one of the most highly regarded junior college quarterbacks in the country.
In Bynes' mind, the Tigers didn't need a savior. What they needed was a quarterback who would help take the offense to another level, a quarterback committed to being a leader and a quarterback who was willing to work.
"From the first day he was here, Cam rolled his sleeves up, put his head down and competed as hard as anyone," Bynes said. "Some people might have made him out to be the savior, but it was never like that with him. He fit right in, and a lot of that was because of the way he went about his business."
Newton wouldn't have had it any other way.
He's already getting a second chance in the SEC after running into trouble at Florida. He was arrested and charged with stealing another student's laptop during his second season at Florida in 2008, which ended up being a redshirt year, and left the program soon afterward. The State Attorney's Office dropped the most serious charges against Newton (grand theft and tampering) after he completed a pretrial intervention program for first-time offenders. Newton's father, Cecil, said his son was unaware the computer was stolen when he bought it from another student and that he panicked when the police came to question him.
The last thing Newton wanted to do at Auburn was get off on the wrong foot with his new teammates.
"I look at it this way: How would I feel if a new guy was coming in on my team thinking he already had a position?" Newton said. "I would want somebody that was willing to go above and beyond and command the respect of the players. I didn't want anybody to give me anything. The players see what's going on. You're not going to fool them. I wanted to work for everything I got here, and I think I have."
The Tigers went through the entire spring before naming Newton the starter.
It was obvious he had exactly the makeup Auburn was looking for in Gus Malzahn's spread offense, and the Tigers will tailor what they do this season around Newton's talents.
"Just like any year, just like we did with Chris [Todd] last year, we're going to play to the quarterback's strengths," Malzahn said. "We'll probably look a little bit different in some ways, but the core part of our offense will still be the same."
What separates the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Newton is his ability to make plays when things break down.
"Everybody knows he's a good runner, but he's got a strong arm," Malzahn said. "He can get the ball in windows a lot of people can't."
Newton ran more than he probably wanted to last season at Blinn College (Texas). A lot of times, it was out of necessity.
"In junior college football, you're always going to have a weak link, but it was fun," said Newton, who passed for 2,833 yards and 22 touchdowns, while running for 655 yards and 16 touchdowns.
"Sometimes, the defense knew what was coming, but it was my hard-headedness or maybe my competitiveness to say, 'You know I'm coming at you. What are you going to do about it? Are you going to stop me?'
"I have the mentality that when the game's on the line, I won't be stopped."
Newton's arm strength had his Auburn teammates talking soon after they saw him for the first time rifling passes downfield almost effortlessly.
"He just flicks it, and you think he's going to take somebody's head off," senior offensive tackle Lee Ziemba said.
Newton doesn't really consider himself a multidimensional quarterback.
How would he describe himself?
"I'm a pocket passer who has the ability to run and get out of trouble," he said.
Even more enticing to Newton is the cadre of playmakers around him, a group that seems to be growing by the day, especially with the way freshmen Trovon Reed, Antonio Goodwin and Shaun Kitchens have performed this preseason.
"I was the go-to guy in junior college," Newton said. "But here, there are so many guys. I'm not going to have the stress and the burden all on my back to make every play on third down."
As disappointed as Newton was in how everything unfolded at Florida, he admits now he wasn't ready mentally or emotionally at that point in his career to be an SEC quarterback.
His immaturity helped to get the best of him.
"A 17-year-old kid who graduated high school early has a different way of looking at things than a 21-year-old grown man," Newton said. "I was young and naive at Florida. I've lived the life of a freshman, and now it's time for me to wake up and smell the coffee and play ball."
Malzahn said much of the spring was spent teaching concepts, but the Tigers are going a lot faster now. So far, Malzahn has been pleased with how Newton has responded, in particular his decision-making skills after the snap.
"We ask a lot of our quarterbacks, and he's picking up everything well," Malzahn said. "Once we start game planning a little more specifically, our timing in the passing game will improve. We're still in the evaluation mode with some of those young guys. Any time you're trying to develop timing in the passing game, it's always better when you narrow things down. In the next week, that will happen."
And in a little more than two weeks, Newton's second shot in this league will begin in earnest when the Tigers open a highly anticipated season on the Plains against Arkansas State on Sept. 4.
"A lot of guys can't say they've had two chances to make it in the SEC," Newton said. "I'm one of the lucky ones."
Chris Low covers college football for ESPN.com. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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