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January 5, 2011

Newton takes center stage ... again

MORE: BCS Title Game Central

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Cam Newton received the rock star treatment Wednesday morning.

Reporters from across the nation mobbed him and huddled around the Biggest Man On Any Campus, peppering college football's Superman with question after question.

Will you be impacted by the long layoff?

What did you do to stay sharp?

What can Oregon do to stop you?

Who do you compare yourself to?

Will your dad be at the game?

And on it went for close to an hour, as Auburn's quarterback and his offensive teammates faced the media for the first time since arriving in Arizona for the BCS national championship game.

Newton was attired in a gray Under Armour sweatsuit, and while he often glanced at his watch, it still was time to hurry up and wait. It also was a good time to marvel at the moment.

"How has my life changed since this time last year when I played in the junior college national championship?" Newton asked back to a questioner.

"This," he said, pointing at the cameras, tape recorders and notepads. "Like, this right here. Like, with all the media, you know?

"I mean, I probably had, what, two people interviewing me after the [junior college title game] about how I felt. But this is before the game, and this is what I get. So this is a big difference."

Newton played at Blinn Junior College in Brenham, Texas, last season, transferring there after two years at Florida. At Blinn, he played for Brad Franchione, the son of former Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione.

"It was a long process [to get him here]," said Franchione, who recently stepped down as coach. "Cecil [Newton's father] and I spoke for about a month on the phone. It was them investigating if what we did would help him, and I believe he felt comfortable with that. And there was a lot of investigative work I had to do with the things he experienced at Florida."

Newton led Blinn to an 11-1 mark and the NJCAA national championship.

Newton's superlatives
He's the first SEC player to throw for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in a season.

He's the most efficient passer in the nation (188.16), which is ahead of the current NCAA single-season record held by Hawaii's Colt Brennan (186.0 in 2006).

He leads the SEC in rushing with 1,409 yards, setting the SEC single-season rushing mark for a quarterback.

He is one of just three players in FBS history to run for 20 touchdowns and throw for 20 touchdowns in a season (Florida's Tim Tebow and Nevada's Colin Kaepernick are the others).

He's aiming to become the 14th player to win the Heisman and a national title in the same season.

He has five of the top 51 rushing performances in school history.

"He was tremendous as a person and player," Franchione said. "He was everything I wanted in a Division I transfer. Some have trouble adjusting to a small-college program and town. If he ever had trouble adjusting, I never saw it.

"I knew he was very gifted. He was initially shy of the weight room. But after he saw how hard we work, he bought it. I saw him improve on and off the field. He was eager to become a great leader. He also improved in reading coverages and throwing."

Newton said Wednesday that he also has changed off the field in the past year or so.

"I think the biggest thing that I've changed was my mental approach on life as a whole," he said. "I think when I was at Florida -- well, I know when I was at Florida, I was very immature and I was a boy. ... I think I have matured and grown into a man."

After winning the junior college title, it was off to Auburn, where Newton enrolled early to compete for the starting quarterback job.

"It was in my dreams," Newton said. "I'm pinching myself because I feel like I'm in a dream every single day I wake up."

Yes, he was a five-star recruit who signed with Florida out of high school. But Newton still was a largely unknown commodity when he arrived on the Plains and pushed the reset button on his college football career. Now he's the Heisman winner and the focal point of an NCAA investigation into whether his dad shopped him to the highest bidder out of junior college.

A lethal combination
Opposing coaches have praised Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn for devising a scheme that accentuates Cam Newton's ample skills.

"They put a lot of stress on your defense with a lot of motions and movement," Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. "They are trying to put stress on your defensive players, and then they will strike with the big play. If you look at them the entire year, their entire operation is based on getting the explosive play. And Cam Newton helps them do that. They always are hunting for the big play."

Auburn has had 33 plays that have covered at least 35 yards this season, with 27 of those resulting in touchdowns. Seven of the plays, all touchdowns, covered at least 68 yards. Auburn leads the SEC and ranks sixth in the nation in scoring at 42.7 points per game. And it's because of Newton.

"You don't often see his combination of agility and size," Diaz said. "He has the ability to run away from you and run you over."

Newton beat out Neil Caudle, Barrett Trotter and Clint Moseley for the starting quarterback job during spring drills, but there were few indications he was about to embark on one of the most extraordinary seasons in college football history.

"He's a good passer," Diaz said. "I don't think he gets enough credit. I really don't see a weakness with what they ask him to do and the offense that they are in. He handles everything very well.

"Because of the threat of the offense in general and of the running game, they usually see more friendly coverages. What [Arkansas quarterback] Ryan Mallett will see isn't necessarily what Newton will see. Defenses are more geared to stopping the option and the things they do out of it. That's why most of their big plays are strikes in the passing game."

Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt puts it succinctly. "They are going to be difficult to beat because of that guy. He's a freak."

"Looking back at it, I consider [the NCAA ordeal] a blessing," said Newton, whose father will attend the game. "I think the whole process has made me stronger, and I opened my eyes to the fact of who is in this process for me and whether it is family members, friends or whatever. I learned about so many people that are very close to me."

Newton also has learned about being a celebrity. Trips to the store or walks across campus often attract stares, finger points and whispers. Often times, observers want a piece of Newton -- an autograph, a handshake, a cell-phone photo, a quick conversation some type of interaction.

"I went shopping -- I tried to go shopping -- yesterday and I felt as if there was a memo to everyone that Cam Newton was coming," he said. "It is kind of crazy."

He's most at ease, not surprisingly, at home, watching TV and simply hanging out. Newton also tries to stay grounded: He volunteered over the holidays at Hosea Feed The Hungry and Homeless organization in his hometown of Atlanta.

"I had to step outside Cam Newton the athlete and step into Cam Newton the human being, the person that is very caring," he said. "It's the first time I did something like that and look forward to doing more of it in the future. It was an eye-opener for me. It was something my cousin had mentioned. It was another way for me to count my blessings. It was an excellent experience that I needed for myself."

He said it's about not getting caught up in who he is and what awards he has won.

"Have I thought about [the awards]?" he said. "Yes, I'd be lying if I said I hadn't. For me to sit back and think of what I have accomplished would be bad for me and is something I don't want to do because I have one more goal to accomplish."

Newton already has done a lot. He has thrown for 2,589 yards and 28 touchdowns en route to being the most efficient passer in the nation. Newton also leads the SEC in rushing, with 1,409 yards and 20 touchdowns. In many ways, he has been the quintessential one-man gang.

But just don't ask him where his Heisman is.

"It's at home, but I don't know which room it is in," Newton said. "My mom and grandmother take care of the decorating.

"But we have had a lot of people over to look at it."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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