Newton's a polarizing player

Debate over controversial quarterback will likely persist until he earns a starting job

Staff writerApril 24, 2011 

As the Carolina Panthers prepare to make the No.1 overall selection Thursday night, there are segments of their fan base that have identified the tall, right-handed quarterback they want leading the franchise into the future.

Andrew Luck.

Three months after Luck decided to return to Stanford for his senior season, there are Panthers fans still smitten with the prototypical drop-back passer. Meanwhile, the quarterback widely linked to the Panthers' top pick remains the most polarizing player in the draft.

Love Cam Newton or hate him. There seems to be no middle ground.

Critics point to Newton's personal baggage and his one-year stint in a simplistic spread offense at Auburn as reasons to avoid the player who won a national championship and Heisman Trophy in his lone season with the Tigers.

But many of Newton's former coaches and teammates - from the youth leagues in College Park, Ga., through his three college stops - say Newton has an infectious personality, a thirst for competition and a skill set that is unparalleled in a 6-foot-5, 250-pound body.

The BCS title at Auburn was Newton's second national championship in as many years. He led Blinn (Texas) College to the junior college title in 2009 after leaving Florida under a cloud of controversy.

Former Florida coach Urban Meyer declined to talk about Newton's character or the incidents (possession of a stolen laptop, allegations of academic fraud) that led to his departure. But Meyer said there was never a doubt about Newton's athleticism and potential for greatness.

"He came here and dominated our camp and was an excellent athlete and really improved as a quarterback," Meyer said last week. "We saw he was going to be a great player, no question about it."

Regardless of who picks Newton - whether it's the Panthers or another team with a quarterback need - the debate over the player who lived through an NCAA investigation last fall over his father's pay-to-play scheme will rage until Newton takes the field as a full-time NFL starter.

After that, it will be simple. If Newton wins, he'll be embraced by an adoring public, and his jersey likely will be among the top sellers in the league.

Newton's backers say winning is what he does best.

"He won a national championship at Auburn," said Ronny Feldman, Newton's position coach at Blinn who is now the school's head coach. "He'd have won it at Oklahoma. He'd have won it at Texas Tech. He'd have won it at wherever you want to say - Texas A&M. "That's just him."

Newton actually has been a part of three national championships. He was on Florida's roster but suspended when the Gators won the 2008 title.

Newton's suspension stemmed from his arrest for grand theft and tampering during his second year at Florida. When campus police visited his room looking for a stolen laptop, officers said Newton threw the laptop - which had been painted black with his name on it - out of his third-story window.

Newton told SI.com he bought the laptop from someone on campus and panicked when police arrived looking for it. The charges were later dropped when Newton completed a pretrial intervention program for first-time offenders.

At the time of his transfer to Blinn, Newton faced possible expulsion because of three instances of academic cheating, FoxSports.com reported in November.

Meyer, who left Florida in January after winning two national titles in six seasons, did not want to discuss what type of person Newton was or his off-the-field issues.

"I'm going to pass on that one," Meyer said when reached by phone last week.

Meyer, who will work for ESPN this fall, said he would talk about Newton's athletic abilities, which were apparent when Newton attended a Gators camp the summer before his senior year at Westlake High in suburban Atlanta. Meyer said Newton was one of two quarterbacks the Gators were recruiting who attended the camp.

"He came in and blew the guy away," Meyer said.

The other quarterback was Stephen Garcia, South Carolina's three-year starter currently serving his fifth suspension since joining the Gamecocks.

Newton played in five games for the Gators in 2007 as a freshman backup to Tim Tebow. Newton engineered a touchdown drive in mop-up duty near the end of a win against Tennessee, highlighted by a run when he bowled over a Vols safety.

It was the type of play Tebow had made as a freshman backing up Charlotte native Chris Leak during the Gators' 2006 national championship season. And though Florida also had quarterback John Brantley on the roster, Meyer said Newton had the physical skills to take over for Tebow.

"It's freakish," Meyer said. "Obviously, you saw what he did this year. His footwork, his athleticism for a guy that big, I don't know if I've ever seen that. And it was obvious when he was 17 years old."

Newton played through a two-month firestorm at Auburn that began last November when ESPN first reported a former Mississippi State player was shopping Newton to his alma mater and other schools for as much as $200,000 to sign when he transferred from Blinn.

Questions about Newton's eligibility swirled around Auburn's program, and the school limited media access to Newton as new details - including the academic allegations at Florida - emerged.

But each week, Newton would run through the tunnel at Jordan-Hare Stadium or other SEC venues - with TV cameras showing him smiling wide - and lead Auburn to another win.

"When the situation came out, Cam came into the locker room the next day. He was like, 'Well, I've got this situation going on. You guys are my brothers. Basically what we need to do is put it on the back burner and go out and win the national championship,'" Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley said at the NFL combine. "That's the one thing we did. If he was ... willing to put the situation behind him and move forward, so were we."

jperson@charlotteobserver.com or 704-358-5125

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