April 28, 2010
Assessing the fall's starting passers, in no particular order. Today: Auburn junior Cam Newton.
• Typecasting. Newton's line as a high school recruit was like something out of the "Create a Player" section of a video game: 6'4", 230 pounds, 4.52 40-yard dash, hot-shot quarterback signee of the Gators' star-studded 2007 class, and was the first one off the bench as a true freshman during early season blowouts that fall. If he hadn't inexplicably dropped a stolen laptop out of a dorm window in November 2008, it would probably be Newton carrying the torch for Florida's continued SEC dominance into the season instead; at the very least, it would be the most intensely watched QB derby of the preseason.
As it stands, Newton found himself as one of the most hotly sought prospects in the country for a second time last winter, now listed at 6'6"/245 and still bearing five stars after making JUCO kids look silly during a championship season at Blinn Community College in Texas. Auburn's decision today to name Newton the official starter going into the summer was a no-brainer, and if he proves to possess even half a brain on the field – preferably the half that regulates responses to legal and social taboos on actions such as theft and destruction of property – he'll be one of the most feared weapons in the SEC.
• At his best ... Think JaMarcus Russell at LSU, pre-NFL bloat. Like Russell in his younger, nimbler days, Newton is limited only by his own mind and discipline; among other conference quarterbacks, Arkansas' Ryan Mallett can match his size and arm strength, but he can't compete with Newton's wheels. Physically, he can do anything you can imagine for him to do.
Terrifyingly, his caffeine-addicted offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn, is widely regarded as one of the most imaginative and consistently effective minds in the game, and he must be bouncing off the walls with the possibilities of his new toy. Consider that Malzahn orchestrated chart-topping offenses two years in a row at Tulsa with quarterbacks Paul Smith and David Johnson, undersized, overmatched who dats in pretty much any other system who somehow combined to throw for more than 9,100 yards and 93 touchdowns under Malzahn, who was also able to make some use of them as running threats on the read option. In one year, Chris Todd morphed from a rag-armed liability as a junior – his leading turn in the epic 3-2 farce at Mississippi State was a highlight – into a competent, efficient SEC starter at the helm of a balanced attack that averaged 432 yards and 33 points per game, nearly double its average point total in 2008.
By big-time college standards, none of those guys had any unique talent to speak of, and still went off in Malzahn's system. With an intimidating scrambler who can actually stretch the field as a passer, the up-tempo spread can quickly go from nuisance to utter nightmare.
• At his worst ... There's probably not enough time or blingy excess on the Plains for Newton to turn into post-bloat JaMarcus, but he could certainly become the next Ryan Perrilloux – in fact, if you had to sum up Newton's first three years in one line, it would probably be, "Ryan Perrilloux with a second chance."
There is no doubt whatsoever about Newton's physical ability, unless he's secretly a member of a freak alien species that either a) Keeps growing beyond all tenable human bounds, or b) Suddenly begins to dry up and ossify at age 21, deteriorating into a brittle, empty shell from which the host being soon emerges – and even then it depends on whether the host being can read a zone blitz with two safeties over the top. The guy can run, they guy can throw. But can he stay on top of a playbook? Can he keep his head amid pass rushers who are actually capable of tackling him? Can he rebound from the inevitable turnovers and fourth-quarter adversity? Can he stay of trouble? The Potential Flake Quotient is even higher here than with most junior college transfers, because we've seen Newton blow a golden opportunity before for reasons that had nothing to do with football.
In a less intangible sense, there are also concerns about his accuracy: He developed a reputation at Florida for leaving too many balls in the parking lot after sailing over his receivers' heads. As an extremely green QB who attempted all of 12 passes as a Gator, it's impossible to make a judgment on that front.
• (Moderately) Fun Fact. By far, Newton's greatest moment in Gainesville was a late scamper in the 59-20 blowout over Tennessee in 2007, when he introduced himself to fellow freshman Dennis Rogan as the clock wound down:
With Newton's return to the SEC, Rogan's baffling decision to leave early for the draft suddenly makes a lot more sense.
• What to Expect in '10. A slow start alternating tantalizing flashes of athleticism with the usual bouts of inexperience, indecision and frustration from a first-year starter, probably including a baffling loss followed by an equally baffling upset. With Malzahn pulling the strings, big numbers are a given (god help Arkansas State, Louisiana-Monroe and Chattanooga); a more telling sign of Newton's progress will be how often they're tempered by big mistakes. If his grasp of the offense is solid enough to remain the full-time starter throughout the regular season, he should be at a point to give Alabama a serious run for its money by Thanksgiving; with enough polish from the coaching staff, he could be bound for the NFL by the new year. At any rate, if Newton remains on the field, the ups should outweigh the downs by the end of the ride.
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Previously (alphabetical by school): Ryan Mallett, Arkansas. ... Kevin Riley, California. ... Chris Relf, Mississippi State. ... T.J. Yates, North Carolina. ... Landry Jones, Oklahoma. ... Tom Savage, Rutgers. ... Andy Dalton, TCU. ... Garrett Gilbert, Texas. ... Scott Tolzien, Wisconsin.