- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 2, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Ralph Friedgen is a big fan of Cam Newton.

“He is to football what LeBron James is to basketball,” the former Maryland coach said of Newton, who led the Carolina Panthers to a 15-1 record this year, the NFC title and a chance at a Super Bowl victory on Sunday against the Denver Broncos

Friedgen, who coached Maryland to a 75-50 record from 2001 to 2010, won an ACC championship and made an Orange Bowl appearance, has been a big fan of Newton’s since he offered the young quarterback from Westlake High School in Atlanta a scholarship to play football at Maryland in 2006.

“I liked him,” Friedgen said. “He was a big, tall, thin kid at the time, and we thought he could play a lot of places on the field. He could have been a defensive end, a guy like that coming off the edge.”

When Newton was a 16-year-old junior, he was a highly sought prospect, throwing for 2,500 yards and 23 touchdowns while running for 638 yards and nine touchdowns. He was a five-star prospect, according to Rivals.com, and received offers not just from Maryland, but from a number of schools, including Georgia, Ole Miss, Oklahoma and Virginia Tech.

He wound up going to Florida, where Urban Meyer promised Newton he would play quarterback.

“He was very highly sought after, more as an athlete than anything else,” Friedgen said. “We looked at the film and went to see him in the spring and gave him a written offer for a scholarship, but a lot of places did that,” Friedgen said. “But, we never got a visit out of him. He was very heavily recruited and he didn’t show much interest. You try your best and you see what happens.”

It didn’t go well for Newton at Florida, where he was arrested in 2008 for receiving stolen property after purchasing a stolen laptop computer. He was also accused of academic cheating and faced expulsion from Florida. Newton left school and transferred to Blinn, a junior college in Texas. He would then transfer in 2010 to Auburn, where reports emerged that his father, Cecil Newton, wanted money in return for his son’s decision to play football. Newton led the Tigers to the national championship.

Friedgen indicated the recruitment of Newton was a messy proposition.

“There was a lot of controversy in the recruitment process, but I don’t want to get into that,” he said.

Whatever happened in college with Newton, Friedgen, a master at developing quarterbacks, likes both the quarterback and the man Newton has become. He will likely be named the MVP this weekend after throwing for 3,695 yards and 35 touchdowns while rushing for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns.

“I’m impressed with what he has grown into,” Friedgen said. “I don’t think there has ever been a quarterback like him in the NFL.

“They say he is 255 [pounds], but I’ll bet he is 265 or so,” Friedgen said. “He probably runs a 4.5[-second 40-yard dash]. His mechanics in my opinion aren’t very good. I don’t know how he does it. He is a big, strong guy. He throws probably three quarters sidearm much of the time, and he hardly ever steps into his throws, but he makes some throws that I just marvel at. He made one against Arizona throwing a corner route falling off his back foot and drilled it in the hole.

“Then they can run with him,” Friedgen said. “They are not afraid of running the option with him. That drives people nuts in pro football. They’re not afraid of him getting hit. He is probably the only spread quarterback other than [Kansas City Chiefs quarterback] Alex Smith, who took six or seven years to develop, who has made it in pro football.

“He is an unbelievable athlete. … Can you think of another athlete who is that big who can throw and run and doing a good job of changing plays and putting guys in the right place? And, he is a tremendous competitor.”

Friedgen also likes Newton’s style on the field — a style that has made Newton the target of criticism.

“I think it’s neat that he gives those balls to kids in the stands,” Friedgen said. “He looks like he is handling everything well, and he looks like he is having fun playing football.”

Count “The Fridge” as one of Newton’s biggest fans.

⦁ Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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