On New Year’s Eve, Cameron Newton made a decision that broke the hearts of many rabid Mississippi State fans by deciding to sign with Auburn.
In a way, Newton will see firsthand the emotional consequences of college football recruiting in the southeast region when he and the No. 22 Tigers travel to Starkville to face Mississippi State.
“It was probably one of the hardest decisions I have made in my recent life,” Newton said Monday. “This decision wasn’t just my decision. I had to clear it with the whole 9 yards. Not just how I feel but I got to go through so many people to see what they think whether it be my family and the close people towards me.”
The nationally-televised primetime contest on ESPN will mark the first time Newton has stepped foot on the MSU campus since being seen at the 2009 Egg Bowl leaving the sidelines of Davis-Wade Stadium with a cowbell in hand.
In his Auburn debut, Newton rushed for 177 yards and two touchdowns while completing 9-of-14 passes for 186 and three scores in Auburn’s 52-26 win against Arkansas State. The 357 total offensive yards and five touchdowns were enough for him to be named Southeastern Conference Offensive Player of the Week. Newton’s 171 rushing yards broke a 36-year school single-game rushing record by a quarterback. The rushing total was the most in a debut by an Auburn player since Rudi Johnson’s 174 rushing yards against Wyoming in 2000.
“Obviously his size and athleticism when he walks in the door wows you,” Mullen said Sunday. “He’s got a arm that can probably throw the ball 80 or 90 yards in the air and the ball jumps out of his hands. He’s a very intelligent quarterback and that’s why we went after him at Florida.”
Newton described on Monday what it was like to have to call Mullen, his former offensive coordinator at Florida, and tell him he’d chosen Auburn. In a strange twist, Newton admitted the most difficult part of the process could’ve been telling Mullen’s wife Megan his decision.
“Not just telling him because we had a good relationship but having to tell his wife – Ms. Megan – that was one of the hardest things because, I don’t know, we had such a close relationship,” Newton said.
During his Monday media conference, the Bulldogs second-year head coach would not go into details his re-recruitment of the junior college All-American to Starkville and casually chalked it up to Newton’s desire to be closer to his hometown of College Park, Ga.
“I’m never confident until we get a paper come through the fax machine on a recruit,” Mullen said Monday. “I recruited him hard when I was at Florida out of West Lake High School and we recruited out of Blinn. He decided I guess to go closer to home.”
To make matters worse, Newton’s father in an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser, fanned the flames of the rivalry in his explanation to why his son picked Auburn over Mississippi State.
“He was leaning toward Starkville,” Cecil Newton said to the Montgomery Advertiser. “He had that relationship with Dan Mullen and there was a comfort level there. I didn’t think that was the right place for Cam. They just don’t have all the moving parts. Cam was going to have to be the star. He’d have to do everything himself. I didn’t want him to be a rented mule.”
Relf, Russell will both play Thursday
After watching his quarterbacks complete 80 percent of his passes and throw for five touchdown passes Saturday, Mullen is going to continue with the same two-quarterback system.
Mullen again said that after they both played impressively Saturday night junior Chris Relf and redshirt freshman Tyler Russell will get significant playing time during Thursday’s night contest against No. 22 Auburn.
“We’ll see how practice goes,” Mullen said. “I plan on us playing both quarterbacks and they’re doing a nice job.”
Mullen and Russell described to reporters Monday why he believes the experience level of the quarterback not playing is still increasing as the game goes along.
“When you’re on the sidelines with the headphones on and you hear the play called, you might see some of the things that you don’t always see while you’re standing out there with a 300-pound guy coming at you trying to hit you,” Mullen said.
Russell met with reporters Monday afternoon and compared the situation to his sophomore season at Meridian High School when he was one of two quarterbacks that received playing time in the Wildcats Class 5A program.
“My sophomore year in high school, we did the two-QB system so it’s really no big deal to me,” Russell said. “When Chris goes in and he’s doing good, it gets my confidence up because I feel like I should be doing good.”
The former Parade All-American signal caller finished Saturday 13-for-16, 256 yards and four touchdowns, which represented a complete reversal from a spring game on the same field months ago that couldn’t have gone worse.
“Probably one of the best learning experiences he could’ve ever had was the spring game,” Mississippi State offensive coordinator Les Koenning said. “There’s a fine line between arrogance and confidence. (Tyler) comes to college and I can remember sitting in a room and it was ‘I got it, I got it.’ Well, I got it turned into oh no when he got on the field. He felt embarrassed.”
K.J. Wright probable to play Thursday
Mullen had senior outside linebacker K.J. Wright as the only player on his weekly injury report Monday.
Wright suffered what MSU officials called a “minor sprain” to his right ankle in the second quarter of Saturday’s 49-7 against Memphis.
In about one and a half quarters Saturday, Wright finished with only one tackle and did not return to the field after sustaining the injury.
"He'll be fine to play in the game Thursday,” Mullen said Monday.
The Bulldogs head coach was informed at halftime by the MSU training staff that the 6-foot-4, 250-pound linebacker could’ve returned to the lineup in the second half but with State already up by 35 early in the second half and a Auburn game less than five days away, the coaching staff decided against putting him back out.
“(The medical staff) came in and thought they could loosen him up and get him going in the second half,” Mullen said after the game Saturday.