Minutes after Auburn’s 56-17 dismantling of South Carolina in the 2010 Southeastern Conference championship game, flabbergasted Tigers coach Gene Chizik searched for words to describe the person sitting next to him.
Auburn quarterback Cam Newton had just torched the Gamecocks for four passing touchdowns and two rushing scores, and he would win the Heisman Trophy the next week in a landslide.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Chizik said. “It’s running the ball. It’s throwing the ball. Usually great quarterbacks do one or the other better, but what God has blessed Cameron with is the ability to be really, really good at both.”
Five weeks later, Chizik was holding up the BCS title trophy in Glendale, Ariz. Alongside him this time was tailback Michael Dyer, the game’s offensive MVP.
Newton and Dyer were members of Auburn’s 2010 signing class, which needed no time to impact the SEC and was not alone in that regard. Tailback Marcus Lattimore led South Carolina to its first East Division title, versatile Trey Burton had six touchdowns in a game for Florida, and cornerback Tyrann Mathieu aided LSU’s stout defense with 57 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two interceptions.
ESPN recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg cannot remember a signing class leaving a quicker imprint than the one from a year ago, but he is not altogether surprised.
“Kids are further advanced now than they were back in the day, and I think there is more attrition when you consider kids leaving for the NFL,” Newberg said. “They’ve got to come in ready to play, and then you’ve got to factor in all the early enrollees that occur now. Getting a spring practice under your belt is huge for guys who want to make an early impact.”
Newton signed with Florida in 2007 and arrived at Auburn last January from Blinn (Texas) College as Rivals.com’s No. 1 junior college prospect. The 6-foot-6, 250-pounder earned the starting role in spring practice and displayed his running talents in an opening rout of Arkansas State by bolting for a 71-yard touchdown.
The incredible runs kept coming, and Newton wound up leading the SEC with 1,473 rushing yards, but he also led the league and ranked second nationally in pass efficiency. He threw for 2,854 yards and 30 touchdowns and was intercepted just seven times.
“I was stunned from the perspective that I thought Cam Newton would struggle throwing the football,” Newberg said. “Everybody knew he could run. I just thought he would struggle in the passing game a lot more than he did, even though he had the arm.”
Dyer was the No. 11 prospect nationally in last year’s class and finished his freshman season with 1,093 yards and 6.0 yards per carry. Lattimore was the No. 10 prospect a year ago and wound up with 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns.
In South Carolina’s two biggest victories against Georgia and Florida, Lattimore pounded out 394 yards on 77 carries.
“He can play running back as well as anybody I’ve ever been around,” Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said late in the season.
Auburn had a slew of fresh contributors in addition to Newton and Dyer, such as offensive lineman Brandon Mosley, defensive linemen Jeffrey Whitaker and Corey Lemonier and defensive backs Chris Davis and Demetruce McNeal, but no school was forced to rely on newcomers more than Tennessee. In a late-season scene composed entirely of freshmen, quarterback Tyler Bray could drop back behind a line that included Ja’Wuan James and James Stone, fake a handoff to Rajion Neal and look for receivers Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers.
Rogers, the No. 9 overall prospect a year ago, had 11 catches for 167 yards and two touchdowns. Hunter compiled 16 receptions for 415 yards (25.9 per catch) and seven scores.
Alabama had nine new defensive starters and got help from freshman linebacker C.J. Mosley and freshman cornerback DeMarcus Milliner. Those two combined for 122 tackles and three interceptions, and Mosley returned a pickoff for a score in a 31-6 rout of Florida.
The Gators signed three of the nation’s top seven prospects last winter: defensive end Ronald Powell (No. 1), defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd (No. 4) and defensive end Dominique Easley (No. 7). None were immediately dominant, though Powell and Floyd showed promise by combining for 48 tackles and 11 tackles for loss.
Vick Ballard, a junior college transfer, rushed for 968 yards to help lead Mississippi State to nine wins, and kicker Zach Hocker stayed busy at Arkansas by making all 56 extra-point attempts and connecting on 16 of 19 field-goal tries.
Georgia may have had the least impact from its newcomers this past season but still had three — guard Kenarious Gates and safeties Alec Ogletree and Jakar Hamilton — who started at various points.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...