It’s Homecoming Week for NFL rookie sensation Cam Newton.
The former 5-star quarterback from College Park’s Westlake High School will lead the Carolina Panthers against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
“It’s a homecoming celebration for people in College Park and around the city of Atlanta — the unfortunate thing is that he’s on the opposite team,” former Westlake offensive coordinator and QB coach Marquis Slaton told the AJC with a laugh.
Newton’s success over the last 14-15 months has been the stuff of legends. He led Auburn to the BCS championship, won the Heisman Trophy, and was selected No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft.
Newton has single-handily revitalized hope and excitement in the Panthers franchise, putting the team in position to win in all five of his starts this season while breaking NFL rookie records along the way.
There are a lot of people jumping on the Cam Newton Bandwagon.
“It was funny to hear [NFL analyst] Terry Bradshaw retract his statements now and say Cam Newton is the most exciting rookie quarterback he has seen since Peyton Manning,” Slaton said. “The bandwagon has been rolling but Cameron personally takes it all in stride. His main focuses are getting better at quarterback each week and getting the team a victory.”
Newton has had such a meteoric rise at QB that some NFL fans across the country are wondering how the tall and lanky kid from Atlanta managed to escape the grasps of nearby UGA and Georgia Tech for college ball. That’s why we talked to Slaton, who coached at Westlake from 2003-08.
Flashback to 2006: UGA was actually an early leader for Newton due to several reasons: His buddy — and the top offensive lineman from Westlake — Kiante Tripp had signed with the Bulldogs the year before, UGA had molded and developed former Westlake star Sean Jones into a second-round pick at safety for the 2005 NFL Draft, and one of Westlake’s assistant coaches was a former UGA player (Resty Beadles). UGA offered Newton around the same time as Florida, and Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo personally recruited Newton for the Bulldogs.
How did it all unfold? The Bulldogs understandably lost momentum with Newton when they signed the No. 1-rated Pro Style QB in the nation in 2006 – Matthew Stafford, while Florida signed the No. 1 Dual Threat QB with Tim Tebow the same year. UGA also began talking to Newton about the possibility of playing other positions in college.
Here’s what UGA coach Mark Richt told the AJC about the recruitment of Newton before last year’s game against Auburn:
“I remember him. He was a very talented guy, a guy that we did look at. We actually had him pegged as more of a tight end prospect. A lot of it had to do with what we like to do offensively, more of a fit [issue] than any disrespect to his ability to play quarterback. He’s proven to be pretty darn good, though.”
That was a dealbreaker. Cam Newton had UGA among his leaders until then, according to his coach. “He was serious about them,” Slaton said. “Our team had a 7-on-7 camp at Georgia, and he went to another camp there. Georgia was on the radar for him. But his father didn’t want him to be in a situation where he had a tag on him as a ‘quarterback-athlete’ and end up in a situation like DJ Shockley — having to wait until his final year to have the opportunity to compete at the quarterback position.”
“Cameron had put in a lot of hard work and long hours preparing to be a quarterback. He didn’t want that all to go down the drain. Pretty much from going around to different 7-on-7 camps and camps during the summer to compete against the nation’s other top QBs at the time, he knew – as well as the rest of our coaching staff – that he could play quarterback on the collegiate level.”
UGA wasn’t the only school that talked to Newton about playing other positions – Miami and Florida State also recruited him as a “quarterback-athlete.” Georgia Tech, under then-coach Chan Gailey, never really got involved with pursuing Newton, according to his coach.
Shortly after Newton began his senior year at Westlake in 2006, he committed to Florida over Oklahoma and Auburn. All three were schools that promised to play Newton as a “quarterback only.” Newton graduated early from Westlake to enroll at Florida in January. Ironically, by the time of signing day in February 2007, the Gators had two other commitments at quarterback, including fellow 5-star John Brantley of Ocala, Fla. UGA signed 4-star Logan Gray from Missouri as part of a package deal with his high school teammate, tight end Aron White.
You know the rest of the story with Newton: After two seasons at Florida, Newton left for Blinn Junior College in Texas, again earning top status as quarterback prospect. The second time around, Newton picked Auburn over Mississippi State and Oklahoma (UGA never was involved).
“It was just a matter of time before someone was going to give him the opportunity to go out there, show what he can do, and lead his team to victory,” Slaton said. “He wasn’t a sleeper prospect or a diamond in the rough. The colleges all knew about him. He just needed an opportunity, and I think making the decision to go to Auburn helped boost him to where he has a gotten now as a quarterback.”
“He has had an awesome start in the NFL. I think he’s continuing to get better each week, helping his team to be in a position to win ballgames. He understands his role. He’s playing within his talent, and doing exactly what the offense allows him to do and what the defense gives him the opportunity to do. He and the rest of the team wish they had more wins, but they know they are just a play or two away.”
What about Sunday’s game? “I know he will be excited about the atmosphere and playing in front of a lot of family and friends. But the most important thing to him about that game will be doing everything he can to help win it for his team.”
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– By Michael Carvell, AJC Recruiting Blog
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