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How Auburn QB Cam Newton matured into Heisman frontrunner

He meant it as an homage, of course. But every time he mentions how much he admires Tebow, how much he's learned from Tebow, it's as if he's tearing a strip of duct tape off the hirsute chest of Gator Nation. (Sort of like this.)

As Florida ponders the possibility of a four-game losing streak; as it basks in mortification at its national ranking in total offense (91st); as we begin to wonder whether the 2008 national champs will be bowl eligible, there can be no question that things would be better in Gainesville if Newton were still there. But he left Florida early in 2009, after two seasons with the Gators. His decision was made, Newton says, when Tebow announced that he'd return for his senior season. "If I stayed," he says, "that was gonna be another year washed down the drain."

Two years and two teams later, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound dual-threat quarterback is the Heisman frontrunner, and undefeated, fourth-ranked Auburn is back in a big way. Thriving in Auburn offensive coordinator GusMalzhan's frenetic no-huddle scheme, Newton leads the SEC in rushing (122.9 yards per game). He is second in nation in passing efficiency (80-of-122 for 1,278 yards, 13 touchdowns and five interceptions) and second in total offense. While the Gators are averaging 329 yards per game, their former quarterback is averaging 305.4 yards per outing. By himself.

There is, of course, more to the story of Newton leaving Florida. On November 21, 2008, he was arrested by university police for being in possession of a stolen laptop. News accounts at the time reported that the sophomore "stole" the computer "from a UF student's dorm room."

As Newton explained to's Andy Staples last May, he didn't steal the laptop; he bought it from a sketchy character for $120. While that's an important distinction, Newton understands that doesn't exactly put him on the moral high ground. "Knowing what I know now," he told Staples, "would I have done it? No. I wouldn't even think twice about doing it. But I did it. I made my mistake."

One of the upsides of the monster season he's enjoying is that Newton now has a platform from which to set the record straight. He was not thrown out of school. "I finished the semester at Florida," he reminded reporters on Tuesday. "But numerous times you hear people saying that [I] stole a laptop. I really didn't steal a laptop. I bought a laptop."

OK. Duly noted. That said, even Newton will admit that, at that time in his life, he had some growing up to do. Enter Brad Franchione.

Franchione is in his fourth year as coach at Blinn College, in Brenham, Texas, the defending junior college national champions. He returned my call in the evening, after he and his wife had hosted the team's quarterbacks and running backs for dinner, which is their Tuesday routine.

In December 2008, Coach Fran got a call from Cecil Newton, Cam's father. The Newtons were exploring their options. They spoke frequently over the next month. Cam and Cecil had questions about Blinn's offense. "It was important to them," recalls Franchione, "that if he came here, Cam would be given an opportunity to learn the passing game, and throw it all over the field."

In mid-January, Cam's older brother, Cecil Jr., a center at Tennessee State, played in the East-West Shrine game in Houston. After the game, Cam and his father drove the 65 miles to Brenham. Cam liked what he saw. "He moved in on a Monday," recalls Franchione, "and started school on Tuesday."

Blinn isn't a football boot camp ... exactly. But it is a place where young men, under Coach Fran's firm guidance, are made over. "There are exceptions," he says, "but if you're at junior college, there's usually something that needs some work. We give our young men structure and discipline."

Newton needed it. "He had some details he needed to improve on," says the coach, "and I think we helped him with that." Asked for specifics, he mentioned just a single incident, when Newton was late for a meeting the day before a game against Northeastern Oklahoma. Franchione sat him for the first quarter.

During Blinn's 2009 spring practice, it was not uncommon for the head coach and his new quarterback to call each other out. Franchione happens to be the Buccaneers' defensive coordinator. "When he scored touchdowns," the coach recalls, "he always made sure to let me know. And when we got a stop, I made sure he knew it."

Their little competition ran roughly even throughout the spring. By the second or third week of the '09 season, it got lopsided. "We'd got through a 10-minute drill against him and the receivers," says Coach Fran, "and he'd throw every pass complete."

That happened two days running in mid-September. "The second day I blew up at the defensive backs," recalls the coach. "Then I went in and watched film. Cam was just taking the right steps, delivering the ball on time, and with accuracy. I thought, 'Jeez-o-Pete, I don't know if I can yell at these guys anymore.'"

Newton, by all accounts, fit in beautifully. "I assumed this kid, coming from Florida, would have a little bit of an attitude," says Jeff Tilley, Blinn's sports information director. "But Cam was the opposite of a prima donna. He was a workaholic, and would talk to anyone." Including preschoolers. That fall, five-year-old Wyatt Franchione brought Newton into his class at St. Paul's Day School as his "show and tell."

By the end of the season, Newton had passed for 2,833 yards and 22 touchdowns, while rushing for another 655 and 16 TDs. He led the Bucs to a juco national title. As he noted earlier this week, he grew as a person "more than I grew as a player." He learned humility, and he learned how to lead a team -- qualities now manifesting at Auburn. As the plaudits and praise pile up, Newton has deftly sidestepped it, deflecting credit to his teammates -- to his offensive line in particular, with whom he dines on Friday nights.

"That's pretty wise of him," notes Auburn coach Gene Chizik, who describes his superstar as "humble," and "very grounded."

Being required to paint your home stadium before being allowed to play in it does tend to have a grounding effect on a student-athlete. After determining that Cub Stadium, the 7,000-seat home of the Blinn Buccaneers, needed some sprucing in the spring of '09, Franchione "just kind of volunteered our kids" to give it a fresh coat of paint. "For about six weeks, every day we lifted, guys would lift for an hour, then paint for an hour."

"We painted every seat, every piece of wood in the stadium, every post, all the wrought-iron fences," he says. "It wasn't fun. But when they were done, our kids looked at it with a sense of pride. Like they had a piece of that."

Should Newton bring home Auburn its first Heisman since Bo Jackson in 1985 ("I'm plugging my ears" to such talk, says Newton), should the Tigers win a certain, coveted, oblong crystal, a little piece of each trophy will belong at a tiny juco in Texas.