|It hasn't taken long for the ever-ebullient Cam Newton to impress his teammates and coaches. (AP)|
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The first thing you notice is the size. Carolina Panthers rookie quarterback Cam Newton looked big in street clothes at the scouting combine, but in full uniform he is the tallest guy in his huddle and at 253 pounds -- real weight -- he is as big as his tight ends.
The second thing you notice is Newton's playful approach to the game. He is serious when taking the play call, and serious when he runs a play, but at times when the play is done, he will do something child-like, such as skipping to the sideline after a handoff or goofing off with a teammate.
Maybe that's who Newton is: A kid in a man's body.
We sometimes forget that he turned 22 in May, even though the Panthers are counting on him to change the dynamic of their franchise after making him the top overall pick in the April draft.
How about just big kid?
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"You can't fake what's real," Newton said during a break from camp. "I like having fun. I love doing the things I love doing. I love to play football. Why wouldn't I have a smile on my face? Why wouldn't I try and get the fans into it? Why not put my all into something I love?"
I have to admit that I came here to talk with Newton uncertain of what I would find. Having watched his scripted meet-and-greet with the media at the combine, I thought he came across as a bit of a phony, a guy who turns it on when he needs to, a charmer of sorts. At the time, he tried to downplay his saying he wanted to be an icon and entertainer (which was overblown, by the way), and he did so in a performance that seemed more theatrical than from the heart.
But after spending time with him here and talking to teammates, coaches and others in the organization, there are a lot of likeable qualities about him. He is candid. But more than anything, he is confident, almost cocky.
Some would frown at that trait, but really, what's wrong with that? Who wants a quarterback who curls up in the fetal position calling for "mommy" when the going gets tough?
"People call it being cocky," Panthers linebacker Jon Beason said. "It's not. It's just being confident."
"There is a confidence about him that oozes over to his teammates," Panthers first-year coach Ron Rivera said.
Newton is currently running with the second team now behind Jimmy Clausen, the second-year player from Notre Dame. But I get the idea that won't be for long. When talking to coaches and players, they light up at the mere mention of Newton's name.
Rivera said he would decide on a starter for the regular season after the third preseason game. Clausen will start the first one this weekend against the New York Giants.
"We will play it out until at least the third preseason game and then we'll discuss whether it's time," Rivera said. "The reason we're doing it like that is so we can say it's this guy or that and then it's time to get him ready for the opener. We want to make sure each guy gets a fair shot to play the same amount of snaps. And then we will go from there."
In the nearly three-hour padded practice I watched, Clausen got most of the snaps with the first-team offense, but Newton seemed to get more snaps overall. Neither of them was special, but Clausen had a little better day.
The one thing Clausen seemed to do was to check the ball down a lot. Newton, on the other hand, doesn't check it down enough.
On one play, Newton dropped in a 25-yard touch throw to tight end Jeremy Shockey that was a thing of beauty. Then on the next play, he held the ball as the coaches screamed for him to check it down. He made some nice throws, and some horrible ones. But you get so mesmerized by the pretty ones that the ugly ones don't seem as bad.
"He's a tremendous athlete and he wants to translate his athletic ability into being a quarterback, and he's doing a good job," Rivera said. "You do have some tremendous plays, the ones that make you say 'wow.' Some of his flat-footed throws, throws off his back foot or throws when he's under duress are some of those. And then you see him get anxious as he tries to force the ball. He's a work in progress."
Newton's body language is usually upbeat. But during Tuesday's work, he seemed to let his problems get the best of him. His body language wasn't pretty.
"He does wear his emotions on his sleeve," Rivera said. "You see it at times. He beats himself up. But he's competitive. That's the sign of a guy who really wants to be great."
Newton's head is spinning. Due to the lockout, the Panthers are forced to install a new offense at an accelerated pace. Newton had a playbook during the lockout to study, but he said it was a far cry from what he has now.
"That's Dr. Seuss compared to doggone Shakespeare," he said.
The Panthers are putting in 30 new passing plays and 15 running plays a day. That means Newton taking those plays home at night and studying just to get a head start on the next day. There were scouts who wondered how he would do with the mental side of learning an NFL offense. Rivera said he has done just fine. Learning the verbiage, which can be really long for even one play, has been the hardest part.
"Has it been tough?" Newton said. "It's been frustrating sometimes. You still have to stay sane, and yet at the same time you're trying to learn something new and so fast. It's like a little kid playing a video game. You are not going to be good when you first play it. It takes time."
Newton smiles at that. It's an infectious smile that might be much more real than I first thought. The fans will take to him because of it -- if he's a success. He could be a marketing mogul. The national ads will probably come.
It's all based on how he does on the field. He's off to a pretty good start.
The past, including the troubles at Florida and the talk of his being paid at Auburn, seems a long time ago. The Heisman Trophy he won last year matters little to those on the practice field. This is his job now.
The strange odyssey he traveled to get here -- including a year in junior college and only one year as a starter at a big-time program -- doesn't mean a thing now. Not to his coaches. Not to his teammates and, most of all, not to Newton himself.
I asked him what he would have said to someone two years ago who would have predicted he would be where he is now, the rookie top overall pick trying to win a starting job.
"Thanks for the props," he said laughing. "I didn't see this coming. I always had this dream to make it to the NFL. It's funny how it worked out. Sooner or later, I need to come up with a book or a movie. If I can sit down and talk about what really happened and how my life panned out. It's amazing and a blessing."
Clausen wears jersey No. 2. That was Newton's number at Auburn. But here he is jersey No. 1.
I would expect by Sept. 11, when the Panthers open against the Arizona Cardinals, Newton's jersey number will match his spot on the depth chart, even if he said he isn't concerned about that now.
"I don't expect anything," Newton said when I asked if he expected to be the starter. "I expect to come out each day and practice as hard as I can to learn. That's what I can control. I am not worried about the things I can't control. That's what the coaches get paid for. I am going to let them do their job. What I can control is me getting into the installation book as much as I can and doing what I can on the field."