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Newton puts best face forward

But NFL teams still are wary about QB

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / February 27, 2011

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INDIANAPOLIS — Cam Newton is movie-star handsome. His cheekbones are sharp, his smile is wide and brilliant, and it creates a dimple in his left cheek. He carries himself as if he’s the best looking man in the room.

None of that, however, will convince an NFL team to spend a first-round draft pick and the accompanying millions on him, that he can win games for a franchise, that he’s able to run a pro-style offense, and that he can read a well-disguised, blitzing defense.

And none of that will prove that he can be the face of a million-dollar organization.

As Newton pointed out in his much-awaited news conference at the Scouting Combine yesterday, just a year ago he was in classes at Auburn and had yet to play a down for the Tigers.

Just a year ago, he was all potential and had a checkered past.

A year later that’s still the case, even though he said he’s “all about the future.’’

A top recruit out of Atlanta’s Westlake High, where his propensity for referring to himself in the third person began, Newton originally chose to play for the University of Florida.

As a true freshman he backed up Tim Tebow; in the first game of his sophomore year, he suffered an ankle injury and opted for a medical redshirt year.

It was then, though, when the problems began: He was accused of stealing a laptop from another student at Florida and was suspended by the team after he was found to have the computer in his possession. Newton then left the school; multiple reports said he was facing expulsion for three incidents of academic cheating.

He spent a year at Blinn Junior College in Texas, leading the school to a national championship, then transferred to Auburn, rated as a five-star recruit. Installed as the starter, he began leading the Tigers on a season that ended with a BCS title for the school and the Heisman Trophy for Newton.

But along the way, there was more controversy. Newton’s father, former NFL safety and current pastor Cecil, was said to have asked programs for money — one report put the amount at $180,000 — in exchange for his son’s enrollment.

Though an NCAA investigation found evidence that Cecil Newton did solicit money from Mississippi State (a former State quarterback blew the whistle on the pay-to-play scandal), the NCAA determined that Cam Newton had no knowledge of his father’s wrongdoing and reinstated him just days after declaring him ineligible, in time for him to play in the Southeastern Conference title game.

After leading Auburn to the national championship, he opted to enter the draft, one of 56 juniors to do so.

Unable to participate in the postseason all-star games, which are only for seniors, Newton held an invitation-only media workout in California last month. The effort to rework his public image was put into motion.

Still, Newton has had trouble getting out of his own way. In an interview with Sports Illustrated last week set up by his first major sponsor, Under Armour (which counts Patriots quarterback Tom Brady as its marquee endorser), Newton said, “I see myself not only as a football player, but an entertainer and icon.’’

The comments caused such a stir that the 21-year-old felt it necessary to clarify them at the opening of his media session; he explained he was “making the point that I want to be the best possible ambassador for [Under Armour], just as I want to be the best possible ambassador for whatever team I am lucky enough to play for.’’

He fielded questions after the statement, his confidence on display. He declined to talk about the events at Florida, and said his relationship with his father is stronger than ever. Newton also referred to himself in the third person twice, the most memorable in his closing sentence, when he said, “I’m just going to continue to focus on Cam Newton to make him the best person that he can be.’’

The Combine is his first chance to meet NFL brass, and each team gets just 15 minutes to interview each prospect.

Though coaches and general managers don’t deny Newton’s athleticism and talent, there are serious questions about his ability to lead an NFL offense. At Auburn, he played in a spread offense with one primary read on most plays, which drastically reduced the decisions he had to make.

“The offense he played . . . is completely different from what we play in the National Football League,’’ Giants GM Jerry Reese said. “But his skill set — he has a superior skill set. Everybody should want to take a chance on a talent like that.’’

Which is why Combine godfather Gil Brandt claimed he would be shocked if Newton isn’t picked first overall by Carolina. Several mock drafts have him being taken in the top 10.

Still, other draft sites don’t list Newton among their top prospects. It isn’t just that he comes from a spread offense; he only had one season as a starter.

As with other players, the total package is always taken into consideration. The workouts, the medical reports, their performances in games and on film, and even how they treated everyone on their college campus, from coaches to custodians, are scrutinized.

“To me, it’s huge,’’ former New England personnel man and Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff said of a quarterback’s character and personality. “It was a big part of our interview process with Matt Ryan. We spent a lot of time with him, not only physically in Boston, but a lot of time with the associates he dealt with. We want him to be the first guy in and the last guy out [of the team facility]. We want him to have a presence.’’

Newton certainly has presence and charisma. But whether he’ll use those traits to help him become a leader at the toughest position in sports is one thing teams will try to determine.

“Look, Cam Newton is a very, very talented player and he’s done some remarkable things in an offense that is unique,’’ NFL Network analyst and former Oakland personnel executive Michael Lombardi said. “But I think he’s going to have to prove to the NFL people that he’s committed, he’s willing to work hard . . . he’s going to have to take some time to develop his game and he’s going to have to show people that there’s an offense that he can fit in and he can develop within.

“That’s a difficult question to answer. The NFL is not like the NBA — you don’t go from high school and start playing really good. The NFL takes time, and especially at quarterback.’’

Newton is all about his future. But his future, at least until the NFL draft gets underway, will be filled with questions from his past. He’ll need more than charm and charisma to succeed.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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