AUBURN, Ala. -- The play took all of 13 seconds, but it established Auburn’s Cam Newton as one of the special players in college football.
The 6-foot-6 quarterback faked an inside handoff, darted up the field and made a cut for the sideline, leaving South Carolina defenders in his wake on a 54-yard touchdown run in September.
But the capper, the part that added to his legend, was the headfirst leap from the 7-yard line -- Superman style -- into the end zone.
“In everyone’s mind we all thought, ‘Wow, he’s the real deal and this team is going to do something special this year,’” Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen said. “That was kind of the turning point for our season.”
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As No. 1 Auburn’s rematch with South Carolina in the SEC championship game nears, the run seems like ages ago, long before accusations surfaced that Newton’s father engaged in pay-for-play discussions during his son’s recruitment to Mississippi State last year.
The Tigers were 3-0 when they played the Gamecocks on Sept. 25, but they still were trying to find an offensive identity.
Newton accounted for 334 yards and five touchdowns in a 35-27 win that week. He has been the focal point of Auburn’s offense ever since.
“At that point in time, it was definitely a learning moment for us as coaches on what he was going to be able to do or at least potentially able to do,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said.
Things have become complicated since then, however. Not on the field, where Newton has thrown for 2,254 yards, run for 1,336 and accounted for 43 touchdowns, establishing himself as the Heisman Trophy candidate to beat.
“He’s tough to take your eye off,” CBS analyst Gary Danielson said. “We thought we had a once-in-a-generation player in Tim Tebow I really haven’t seen one like (Newton) so far.”
But with the ongoing NCAA investigation into Newton’s recruitment, Auburn has locked down media access to its quarterback. Newton hasn’t spoken to reporters since Nov. 9, the Tuesday before the Georgia game.
Even CBS, which pays for the rights to broadcast SEC games, was denied access to a Newton interview in advance of the title game.
Chizik, who has chosen not to comment on Newton’s situation for weeks, would not say whether the quarterback would be available to the media again this year, even when informed of an SEC open-locker room rule that mandates players be available following the conference title game.
In an e-mail Tuesday, SEC spokesman Charles Bloom cited a league policy that said “failure to comply with these rules and regulations may subject the coach and/or the institution to a fine by the Commissioner.”
Bloom said the fine for not making players available after the conference title game is at the commissioner’s discretion.
“The policy has never been violated,” he added.
Newton, meanwhile, has been unaffected by the drama.
He engineered Auburn’s comeback from a 24-point deficit against Alabama in the Iron Bowl, accounting for four touchdowns in the 28-27 win.
It was as hostile of an environment as he has faced. Jason Adlman, a 2008 Alabama graduate who has worked as a disc jockey, mockingly played “Take the Money and Run” and “Son of a Preacher Man” over the Bryant-Denny Stadium sound system as Auburn entered the field. He was fired Monday, according to the Tuscaloosa News.
As Newton left the field following a pregame walkthrough, a wad of dollar bills featuring his mug shot was thrown from the Alabama student section, fluttering to the ground near the quarterback’s feet.
Newton didn’t break stride or even glance over to the stands; he walked straight to the tunnel.
“His performance in the first half of Alabama, when everything’s going wrong around him -- he was calm, no theatrics, no yelling at any players, no frustration, no picking on anybody,” Danielson said.
“I thought he showed himself to be composed and the rest of the team followed.”
Lutzenkirchen said Newton has continued to go about his business in his own way.
“Business as usual for Cam is just straight goofball,” he said. “He’s always joking around, always messing with everyone. That hasn’t changed at all throughout this year throughout any of this.
“So it’s just good to have regular old Cam.”