Cameron Newton spent his first night as a Florida student watching the Gators annihilate Ohio State in the BCS national championship game on TV, followed by a raucous celebration in the streets of Gainesville. Three months later, Newton was with the Gators when they were honored in a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House.
By Mark Schlabach
How’s that for freshman orientation?
Newton, a quarterback from Westlake High School in suburban Atlanta, was one of eight Florida freshmen who graduated from high school early to enroll in classes in January. He participated in spring football practice and goes into preseason camp as the favorite to serve as sophomore Tim Tebow’s backup this season.
The defending national champions open preseason practice Sunday.
“I feel like I’m ahead of the game by a long shot,” Newton said. “During the spring, I improved a lot, both mentally and physically. I achieved a lot of goals in the weight room and on the field. I know a lot more than what I would have known enrolling a month ago.”
Newton decided before his senior season of high school that he would attempt to enroll in college early. He took summer school classes and online courses to meet graduation requirements.
He verbally committed to play for the Gators after their 42-0 win over Central Florida in the second game last season, and then was on campus for good about three months later.
“It was a whole different world,” said Newton, who has yet to decide on an academic major at Florida. “In high school, the most students you’d have in a class was like 30. My first class at Florida, there were 350 people in the classroom. In high school, you’d have a relationship with your teacher and there was interaction. In college, you just have to go to class and listen to the professor and take notes.”
When fall classes begin at Florida next month, Newton will be nearly finished with his freshman year of studies. He was enrolled in 17 hours of courses during spring semester (earning two B’s, two C’s and two completions) and took classes during both summer school sessions. Getting ahead academically might have been more important than anything he gained on the football field.
Newton also adjusted to living away from home for the first time. Because Newton already knows his way around campus and town, there will be less stress this fall, when he is competing for playing time in football.
Enrolling early gives Newton an edge over Florida’s other backup quarterbacks. The 6-foot-5, 248-pound rookie split most of the snaps with Tebow during spring practice. He became the No. 2 quarterback when juco transfer Bryan Waggener, from Citrus College in Glendora, Calif., broke his foot in the spring.
Initially, Newton seemed overwhelmed by the complexity of the Gators’ offense, but he showed progress after 15 spring practices. He told the Florida student newspaper, The Alligator, that his experience this spring was “like throwing a little goldfish in the sea.”
In Florida’s spring game, Newton completed 20 of 30 passes for 275 yards. He muffed three snaps in the first half of the scrimmage, but settled down as the game went on.
In the weight room, Newton improved his bench press from 285 to 305 pounds. An even bigger quarterback than Tebow, Newton also has good mobility, running the 40-yard dash in 4.55 seconds. He also learned how to watch film and participated in the team’s voluntary passing drills this summer.
“I think I’ve got a chance to play this fall. But you’ve still got to compete and put yourself in cruise control. You can’t get relaxed. As soon as you get relaxed, somebody can jump ahead of you.”
— Florida freshman QB Cameron Newton
“The quarterback has to know everything on the field,” Newton said. “He has to know everybody’s job on the field. He has to know who to slide to and where to throw in a certain type of coverage. You’ve got to know all of that even before you walk up to the line of scrimmage. In high school, you’re usually the best athlete on the team, so there are some things you can get away without knowing. But in college, everybody was an All-American coming out of high school, so you really have little room for mistakes.”
The competition heats up in preseason camp. Waggener, who completed 57.6 percent of his passes with 12 interceptions and 10 touchdowns in his second season of junior college, has recovered from his foot injury and rejoins the battle. So does freshman John Brantley, the Gatorade National Player of the Year from Ocala, Fla. Brantley threw for 2,766 yards and 41 touchdowns in his final season at Trinity Catholic High. His 99 career touchdown passes broke the state record set by Tebow, who had 95 TDs with Pease High School.
Florida coach Urban Meyer said he and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Dan Mullen will try to quickly identify Tebow’s backup, so the top two quarterbacks can take the majority of snaps during preseason camp. Meyer said he hasn’t yet decided if he’ll rotate two quarterbacks, as he did with Chris Leak and Tebow last season.
Tebow ran for 469 yards and eight touchdowns and threw for five scores in limited action behind Leak in 2006. Tebow, who also enrolled early at Florida, said he advised Newton to “watch and learn and ask a lot of questions” during the spring.
“There’s going to be a lot of pressure on Dan Mullen the first week of two-a-days to determine who our No. 2 guy is, because you can’t get four guys ready,” Meyer told reporters last week, at the Florida Sports Writers Association preseason football news conference. “You only have so many repetitions. Then, once we find out who that backup is, it’s a question of how good is he, and does he deserve that playing time?”
Newton said he knows he can’t rest on the advantage he gained this spring.
“I think I’ve got a chance to play this fall,” Newton said. “But you’ve still got to compete and put yourself in cruise control. You can’t get relaxed. As soon as you get relaxed, somebody can jump ahead of you.”
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men’s college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.