Gus Malzahn was Auburn’s offensive coordinator back in 2010, when a transfer quarterback from Florida arrived on campus in time to participate in spring football. It didn’t take long for Malzahn to realize Cam Newton would be the starter come the fall, and by the end of that magical season Newton had not only led the Tigers to a national championship but won the Heisman Trophy, as well.
Malzahn was Auburn’s head coach by 2017 when another transfer quarterback arrived at the Alabama school, this time by way of Baylor and McLennan Community College. And again, Malzahn learned quickly he could rely on Jarrett Stidham as his team’s next leader, a two-year stint at QB that included an SEC West title and signature wins over powers Georgia and Alabama.
Two new players, two incomparably hard workers, two students of the game who stepped confidently into a void and filled it.
“The hunger that both of them had, I think that was similar,” Malzahn said in a telephone conversation this past week. “Being older guys that already had some experiences and coming into a new situation, they were both mature and knew what they wanted, and worked to get it.”
When it comes to the upcoming NFL season (if there is one) and predicting who will be the guy to step in for THE GUY in New England, perhaps there is no one better than Malzahn to discuss the pair of leading candidates for the Patriots. Not surprisingly, Malzahn isn’t about to guess which one of his two former students is better suited to take that first step into Tom Brady’s vacated cleats, a question akin to asking a parent to choose a favorite child. But also not surprisingly, given his history with the two men, Malzahn is confident the Patriots will be safe in either’s hands.
“I think both of them could handle that without a problem,” Malzahn said, the news of Newton’s free agent signing to join Stidham in New England still relatively fresh. “The thing about Cam is you’re talking about one of the better quarterbacks in NFL history already. He’s already proved that. With Jarrett, the fact that he was in the system for a year, that he learned under Tom, I know his mind-set. He’s ready to take over himself. Either one of them is prepared, but Cam has already done it.
“They’re both competitors now; both of them are going to compete. It’ll be good competition, but I really expect it to be a real healthy quarterback room. If you’re New England, it’s a great situation.”
Smart money has to be on Newton, even if he joined the Patriots only recently, even if the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented teams from being together in advance of training camps we don’t know for sure will even go on, even if he was released by Carolina after having his 2019 season cut short by surgery for a Lisfranc injury. He’s taken more than his share of physical punishment in nine NFL seasons, but he is a former league MVP, throwing for 3,837 yards, rushing for 636 more yards, and accounting for 45 touchdowns in 2015, leading Carolina to a 15-1 record and Super Bowl appearance.
The Panthers lost to the Broncos, but that level of play, that sort of experience, cannot be replicated, nor should it ever be discounted. And it can be enormously valuable in replacing a quarterback who won six Super Bowls, three league MVPs, and made 14 Pro Bowls while establishing himself as one of the most beloved athletes ever to wear a Boston uniform. Newton’s various social media accounts show a player who is ready to show the football world he has plenty left to give, including a whole playbook of run-pass options that even the great Brady would envy.
“One thing I’ll guarantee is he’ll be extremely hungry and motivated,” Malzahn said. “He thrives off of situations like that, and I’ve seen that look before. He’ll play really well, in my opinion.”
Malzahn has been consistently effusive in his praise of both Newton, whose singular brilliance in that one year at Auburn has the coach putting it among the best, if not THE best, college football seasons ever, and Stidham, drafted in the fourth round by the Patriots two years ago. But that was before they would end up on the same roster, competing for the same starting job. Now that they are together (along with veteran journeyman Brian Hoyer and rookies J’Mar Smith and Brian Lewerke), I couldn’t help but ask Malzahn to describe the type of personality each one brings to the room.
“Cam will light up a room now, he’s always smiling, such a positive person,” he said. “Jarrett, he’s just one of those guys that kind of never met a stranger. When he first got here, he met everyone in our program within the first week. He’s real outgoing, just a real fun guy.”
The two are acquainted, Malzahn said, having shared a lunch after Newton returned to Auburn to speak to the team during Stidham’s tenure. With a younger brother on Auburn’s roster now (as a wide receiver), Newton returns as often as he can, including plans during the Patriots’ bye week when Auburn hopes to honor that 2010 national championship team. “We’ll have Cam back for that, and maybe Jarrett will show up, too,” Malzahn said.
It is certainly a season worth celebrating, the seeds for which were planted in those spring practices, when the newest addition to the roster proved the readiest to take over at quarterback.
“Cam is really smart, he’s brilliant,” Malzahn said. “He won the job. As we got to know each other it didn’t take very long to figure out he’s not just special physically, but special mentally, his approach, the practice player he was, so coachable. And he just has that ability to lead his team. He refused to let us lose that year.”