Cam Newton left Florida Gators wondering what could have been

The decline of the Florida Gators' football program in recent years might be a moot topic of conversation if one player could have stuck to the plan.

Even as an 18-year-old freshman, Cam Newton's raw ability amazed Gators upperclassmen when he took the field. But the blue-chip quarterback from Atlanta wasn't mature enough to wait his turn in Gainesville, Florida, and take the reins from Tim Tebow.

"We thought the program would be in good hands for a long time with him," tight end Cornelius Ingram said of Newton. "You could see [the ability] when he got in the game."

During interviews for an ESPN.com story on the triumphs and decline of Florida football from 2008 to 2010, it became clear that Gators teammates appreciated Newton's carefree, amiable personality. But they also understood that those very same traits hurt him on the field.

Before winning the 2010 Heisman Trophy for Auburn, becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft and earning a contract potentially worth $100 million from the Carolina Panthers, Newton had "some goofiness to him" that played out on the Florida practice field, cornerback Markihe Anderson said. A number of players believed Tebow's unquestioned role as starter allowed Newton to lose focus, with another highly rated quarterback recruit, John Brantley, becoming the better practice performer. Brantley, a natural pocket passer, won the starting job in 2010 and produced mixed results in a spread offense designed for running quarterbacks. He went 13-8 as a starter and threw for fewer than 200 yards in 13 of those games.

Conversely, Newton landed at Auburn after spending a year at a Texas junior college, and he produced one of the finest seasons in college football history. Newton went 14-0 in guiding the Tigers to the 2010 BCS championship, accounting for 51 touchdowns and more than 4,000 passing and rushing yards combined.

"He wasn't always putting his best foot forward [as a backup]," former Gators running back Brandon James said. "Guys would always speak to him, remind him to take things seriously -- 'You're going to be special.' It kind of clicked for him with the bumps in the road away from Florida, but he needed that time to develop."

Ultimately, Newton's two-year stint at Florida ended with him leaving head coach Urban Meyer little choice but to make other quarterback plans.

Newton was arrested and charged with possession of a stolen laptop in November 2008. The charges were dropped after Newton completed a pre-trial intervention program and community service. Fox Sports later reported Newton was facing possible expulsion for academic improprieties when he transferred to Blinn College in 2009. Newton decided to transfer, but there's almost no question he was out of chances at Florida.

Over two years, Newton gave Florida 113 rushing yards and 54 passing yards in spot duty. He gave Auburn and Carolina much more than that. Knowing what Newton went on to become -- and what Florida became without him -- it's easy to wonder whether Meyer would still be at Florida had Newton stayed, players say.

"If he doesn't get in trouble and sticks it out, Florida doesn't have the problems they've had," James said. "The offense fits him perfect."

Former Florida tight end Tate Casey agrees Newton was an ideal fit for Florida's offense, but wonders whether Newton needed the change of scenery to maximize his potential.

"Going to [junior college] was probably a turning point in life, and it may have been the best thing for him," Casey said. "If he stayed at Florida, who knows if he would have had the same spark? It's not certain he wanted to be there anymore."

Years later, former Gators who are now in the NFL have interacted with Newton enough to know he would have been an explosive, exciting player to watch in The Swamp.

While discussing a two-year Gators run that produced a 26-2 record and the 2008 national championship, and what subsequently went wrong with the program, center Maurkice Pouncey said, unprompted, within the first minute of the conversation: "What if Cam Newton stayed at Florida?"

It's the same tantalizing question many Gators fans have undoubtedly asked themselves.