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Halfway Heisman: Series of events equals Newton's sudden arrival


Florida had a hand in it. Alabama will be glad to know that the son of Dennis Franchione was involved. A former Army air traffic controller can claim a piece of the glory.

Let's just say it's complicated in evaluating the nation's best player halfway through season. All we know for sure is that Tim Tebow wears Cam Newton pajamas ...

And when Cam Newton spits into the wind, the wind changes directions ...

Or when Google can't find something, it asks Cam Newton for help.

If that doesn't convince you, then there is one populist achievement that should amaze the masses: Cam Newton can get breakfast at McDonald's after 10:30 a.m.

Did we say it was complicated? Actually, the Heisman would be a done deal if the season ended today but to paraphrase one more time: You're only alive because Cam Newton feels like it. And it's good to be alive. because Auburn's junior quarterback isn't finished.

Newton, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound new SEC deity-in-waiting, is no longer just property of the nation's best conference. He is ours, he is dominating, he is different. Coming off a basketball-on-grass win over Arkansas, Newton is ready for his national close-up: lights, Cameron, action.

"That's a selfish award," Newton said of the Halfway Heisman unofficially awarded to him by seemingly half the country and officially by in this column this week. "That could flush the whole season down the drain."

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There has been some flushing, all right. The notion that Auburn is Alabama's little brother is altered, if only for half a season. The belief that there will never be another Tebow, the player Newton most closely approximates, is up for debate. Other first-half sensations have either fallen off or fallen behind Auburn's sensation. Newton is a bigger Denard Robinson, a more consistent Taylor Martinez, a more mobile Ryan Mallett, a more imposing Kellen Moore, a more efficient Greg McElroy and a more accurate Matt Barkley. Those are the names that orbit near Newton's in the national statistics. Where separates him is a running ability that mocks the term "dual threat." Dual-threat? Try dual ways to kill you. His 122.9 rushing yards per game lead the SEC. That's a novelty after the first month. Halfway through the season, it's historic. A quarterback hasn't led the conference in rushing since 1963.

This is the league of Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, Emmitt Smith and, suddenly, a 21-year-old Atlanta native and Florida expatriate most recently from Blinn Junior College. You almost laugh this week when you hear Tigers offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn relay his first impressions:

"We didn't know how tough he was."

In a 15-minute interview, that's the only hint of uncertainty shown by a giddy Malzahn, who has the shiniest jewel of his long career as an offensive mastermind. Part of the task now is not to screw it up. They didn't know about Newton's toughness because they didn't allow him to get hit in spring or fall drills. Smart move. The addition of the ultimate triggerman quarterback has boosted Auburn from a 5-7 team two years ago in Tommy Tuberville's final season to a national championship contender and certainly into the argument for best team in the state.

Hey, Alabama got dominated by a team (South Carolina) that just lost to Kentucky. Auburn is No. 4 in the BCS, knocking on the door of that championship with the best player in the country. Gene Chizik take a bow. Now get out of the way. We can't wait to see where Newton's instincts take him next. There have been four 100-100 games (100-plus yards rushing, 100-plus yards passing), more than 300 yards per game in total offense. Perhaps most impressive is the touchdown total, 25 -- 12 passing, 13 rushing -- that put him on pace to go 20-20 (rushing touchdowns-passing touchdowns). That's Tebow class in more ways than one.

"I learned so much from Tim Tebow," Newton said.

There's the Florida connection. You could say they were once linked at the hip, er, lap ... top. They were teammates for two seasons, during which Newton went from five-star prospect to third on the depth chart. Part of that had to do with Tebow and John Brantley. The other part was what did or didn't happen when Newton was arrested for stealing a student's laptop 23 months ago. Newton believes he inadvertently bought a stolen laptop. Whatever the case, the legal climate didn't ease when police found the laptop behind a dumpster, apparently thrown by Newton from his third-floor room.

At the time, Newton was redshirting, having not exactly lit it up for the Gators. The joke going around Gainesville was that police knew it was Newton because the laptop had missed the dumpster.

"You hear people say, 'You stole a laptop,'" Newton said this week. "I bought a laptop. For anybody to think such a [bad] thing goes to show what they've been reading."

The charges were eventually dropped after a pre-trial diversion program. Newton wants you to know that. He also wants you to know that he stayed until the end of the semester and transferred for athletic reasons. Tebow made the decision to come back for his senior season, sealing the deal.

"I think I was left with no choice but to leave," Newton said. "I felt like if he comes back for his senior year, I really wasn't going to get a chance to play, and that was another year washed down the drain."

Newton leads the SEC in rushing ... as a QB in the league that produced Bo, Herschel and Emmitt. (Getty Images)  
Newton leads the SEC in rushing ... as a QB in the league that produced Bo, Herschel and Emmitt. (Getty Images)  
That's where the Franchione factor comes in. Brad Franchione, son of Dennis, is the coach at Blinn. The two got together without Newton ever having seen Brenham, Texas, home of the junior college power about 60 miles east of Houston. Newton heard the pitch, saw some film of Franchione's offense and went for it. Sixty miles, at that point, might as well have been 6 million.

"It was a culture shock for the most part," Newton said. "I was in a stressful state of mind to say the least during my first couple of months at Blinn."

The culture shock worsened because Newton had been to the mountaintop. Now he was at a football backwater. All parties agree -- Franchione, Newton, the Blinn players -- there's not much else to do in Brenham but to go to class and practice.

"I go from the University of Florida where you can get Gatorade at your beck and call to a place you have to paint your stadium for you to at least look like the program is up to some kind of standard."

The painting, of course, was done by the players.

It was a challenging time, but not something radically different for the average junior college coach. Franchione had only a few months to connect with his prized quarterback. Newton arrived in January and was gone shortly after the Dec. 9, 2009, national championship game won by Blinn. Thirty-eight touchdowns later (22 passing, 16 rushing), a slightly lighter version of the Newton from the we see now made the connection. The coach knew his quarterback was applying himself when he walked home at night. From his house, across the street from the stadium, he could see Newton hurling passes getting extra work in.

"I think it was one of the most influential changes in my life, hands down," Newton said. "Everybody has that turning point in their life where they can say, 'That's when I really decided to put things all together.'"

Both coach and player understood that was going to be the last chance for the quarterback to hit the big time. Franchione says he is a disciplinarian and that he and Newton didn't always see eye-to-eye all time. "There is one specific incident," Franchione said, refusing to go into detail. That, he intimated, was a single drop of salsa on a table-of-four white table cloth.

"It was going to be a second chance for him," Franchione said. "He's a very, very intimidating presence when he stands. His personality is much different. He lights up the room when he walks in. People gravitate toward him."

Malzahn recruited him to Auburn along with recruiting coordinator Curtis Luper. That's the Army connection. Luper was a former air traffic controller (1988-92 after leaving Oklahoma State). He is also an accomplished recruiter, a little bit more accomplished now that he can take some credit for landing Newton. The two assistants didn't have to sell much. Auburn is near Newton's Atlanta home. The offense is a showcase for his talents, and Chizik desperately needed a difference-making quarterback.

"Oh gosh, probably the first game," said Malzahn when asked when he knew his life had changed with the best quarterback of his career. "He made a couple of plays that you kind of go, 'Wow.' "

Wow is now seven games old. A few other adjectives have been added going into the biggest test of the season against LSU. However this ends, Newton certainly has to go down as one of the best recruits in Auburn history. Amazingly, only a handful schools pursued him out of Blinn, according to Franchione, Oklahoma, Mississippi State and North Carolina among them. Was it the laptop caper? Were the dumpster jokes accurate? Well, no. Even with a player as talented as Newton, sometimes it's difficult to bring in a juco quarterback into the mix. Mississippi State and North Carolina had no problem. Each needed a quarterback. It does mean now that a lot of schools let a potential Heisman winner get away.

"People view my situation as a person who got over or a person that is guilty," Newton said. "That's something you have to take with a grain of salt. ... I also believe a person shouldn't be thought of as a bad person because of some senseless mistake that they made. Every person should have a second chance. If they blow that second chance, so be it for them."

Give this to Newton, then: He didn't have to be told twice.

"Your leaders take hold of it and run with it," Franchione said.

And pass it, and leap over the line with it and amaze millions to the point that ... Superman fears Kryptonite. Cam Newton eats it for breakfast.

Other Halfway Heisman candidates

Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State, Soph.: Thriving in Dana Holgorsen's offense averaging 160 receiving yards per game a nation-leading 12 touchdown catches.

LaMichael James, RB, Oregon, Soph.: Leads the nation in rushing. If he wins the Heisman, he'll be the first to miss a game doing it since Charlie Ward.

Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford, Soph.: Seems to channel the aggression of his coach Jim Harbaugh as a runner and passer.

Kellen Moore, QB, Boise State, Jr.: Even against air, 55 touchdowns and four picks since the beginning of 2009 is impressive.

Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan, Soph.: Obviously can't stand up physically to the pounding, but if this one-man team gets Michigan to a bowl, he will have saved Rich Rodriguez's job.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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