Beyond the gated entrance with security guards and the impressive clubhouse with a snack bar and outdoor pool – in fact, way back on a sprawling campus of IMG’s elite athletes – is a modest building much like a mobile home. Inside it this spring during warm Florida days were a number of athletes that were about to be well-paid.
At the time, they likely were living on borrowed money and paying for dinners on credit cards, but Christian Ponder and Cam Newton were first-round draft picks knowing they would be paid handsomely once the NFL lockout ended and contracts could be executed. Despite their bright future ahead and the opportunity to lay in the sun with little to do or enjoy their days away on the golf course or fishing on the lakes that Ponder embraces, Newton and Ponder each decided that preparation was more important that relaxation.
They didn’t work much together because they were learning different offenses – Ponder was working from a playbook he received the day after he was drafted by the Vikings and Newton was working from the Carolina Panthers’ playbook – but they were both becoming immersed in their individual schemes by former Florida State star Chris Weinke, a Minnesota native who is now the director of football at the Madden IMG Football Academy.
“I think they built a pretty good relationship. They’re both good guys and both competitive guys and they knew they’d be facing each other at some point,” said Weinke, who worked with Newton and Ponder for about a month this when the NFL was locking out players and prohibiting contact with NFL coaches.
On Sunday, the two of them will meet as starting quarterbacks in their rookie seasons – Ponder for the Vikings and Newton for the Panthers, who selected him No. 1 overall. Newton has been Carolina’s starter from the opening game and Ponder joined the starting ranks of NFL quarterbacks last week against the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. Ponder numbers – completing only 13 of 32 passes for 219 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions – hardly tell the story. He has converted 10 third downs passing the ball in five quarters of play and completed five passes that went more than 15 yards in an offense struggling to find explosiveness.
“It’s a tough task to play against obviously a very solid football team. For a young guy, he did a great job. I thought he looked comfortable. He made some big-time throws from the pocket, but he also made some throws on the run and really some significant throws on third down on the run,” Weinke said. “I thought he moved around well. I thought he looked comfortable. It looked like he had command of the offense. I was quite impressed.”
Newton started the season with a bang. He set a NFL rookie record with 442 yards passing in the season opener and followed that up with a 432-yard performance against the Packers, so he now holds two of the top three yardage marks in Panthers history. Sanwiched in between those performances on the Panthers’ all-time charts is a 423-yard day by Weinke against the New York Giants in 2006.
But, despite working with Newton for a few weeks during the NFL lockout, Weinke said you can never be too sure if a quarterback will have immediate NFL success.
“You don’t ever know until you actually spend time with a guy. The perception through the media was that he wasn’t going to be able to make that transition – not that he wouldn’t be able to, but that it would take a long time for Cam to be able to make that transition because he came from an (Auburn) offense that was, in essence, pretty simple,” Weinke said. “But after a very short period of time and spending time with Cam, I found he was very smart, he had the mental capacity to be able to pick up on the verbiage and the mental concepts of those things very quickly, much more quickly than I ever anticipated. I was guilty of being an outsider and listening to what he was capable of. There was obviously some unfair criticism on Cam. I think he’s proven people wrong and continues to work and obviously have some success as a quarterback.”
Although Ponder and Newton didn’t spend a lot of time together, there was a camaraderie formed when they were on the IMG campus at the same time. One day in particular stands out for Weinke.
“They were always jabbing back and forth when they were out there together. The thing I looked at was how they interacted with each other,” Weinke said. “It was always in good fun, but they were jabbing at each other and really always competing without really making it too evident. They were competing all the time.
“One of the funnest days was when Cam was out there running routes for Christian. At the end of the day, they probably came in and looked at each other as competition and then they built a relationship. Quite frankly, I think they pushed each other. When one saw the other working a little bit harder, he would elevate his game. It was fun to see those guys working together.”
The key to both of their successes to date has been their willingness to work when they didn’t necessarily have to. Neither was satisfied with simply being a first-round pick (Ponder was a surprise to many to be taken No. 12 overall), and both of them sought out additional help.
Sure, there were times to relax in the pool, time on the golf course and time in the restaurants around Bradenton, Fla., but during the day they were worked physically by strength and conditioning coaches and speed coaches and, after all that, by Weinke.
After a morning of physical workouts, Weinke and his rookie quarterbacks would spend time in the classroom – individually because of the different offenses – and then work on concepts and mechanics out on one of the IMG football fields. Ponder said creating a training camp-like atmosphere helped a lot, and despite Weinke not having worked in the offense Ponder is now running in Minnesota, there is enough carryover from one scheme to another.
“A lot of the plays are very similar in different offenses, so we would try to go through the reads. It was really good, just to try to get some sort of work during the offseason,” Ponder said.
What Ponder and Newton showed was a desire to improve over a temptation to take it easy.
“Maybe it sounds corny, but it was hunger. They both wanted to be challenged. They both wanted to be pushed,” Weinke said. “You can always tell if a guy understands what you’re teaching when he starts asking the right questions. Both of those guys were asking the right questions and always asking for more information. I think there’s that natural hunger to be better, because they both wanted to be great.
“They are already naturally competitive; they are already naturally born leaders. I think they were always looking for something to gain an edge. That’s always one of my coaching philosophies – what can we do to gain an edge. Everybody’s working, but I always say don’t mistake activity for achievement. Just because you’re out there doesn’t mean you’re getting better. Those guys, their work ethic, their commitment, they knew why they were down there. They put the work in and it’s obviously paying dividends now.”
Weinke will be watching both of them when their teams meet Sunday afternoon in Carolina. The Panthers are 2-5 and the Vikings are 1-6, but both franchises feel a renewed sense of optimism for the future because of their rookie quarterbacks.
Weinke says he will measure their success by factors other than stats. He wants to see how they take charge of the huddle and wants to watch their feet more than their arms.
“I can tell a lot. Put a camera on their feet and I’ll tell you what kind of game they had,” he said. “It says a lot about their comfortable level. It says a lot about whether they are playing with anticipation and they understand what’s going on out there or, on the flip side, if they’re playing with hesitation. I’m really watching them and hoping, quite frankly, that they both have success.”
Newton and Ponder weren’t the only quarterbacks being coached by Weinke in Florida. Third-stringer Joe Webb was also part of Weinke’s workouts for about a month. “It was a great decision to go down there and work there,” Webb said. “It taught us a lot about the game, different aspects of the game (because he’s a) former quarterback of the game. I learned a lot from that short period of time.”
Webb and Newton are both known for their athleticism (if you have haven’t seen Webb’s predraft jump over a stack of seven dummies, it’s a testament to his leaping ability), but Webb said they never raced down at IMG. They did, however, have a competition on the basketball court. “We played basketball a couple times, played horse or out or whatever somebody calls it, at the basketball court they had at IMG. A little competition there. … He would win one game and then I’d win. It would go back and forth.”
Maybe it’s just a testament to how good Adrian Peterson is, but was his 175-yard game against the Green Bay Packers about the quietest 150-yard-plus performance you’ve seen? There was so little buzz about it that he wasn’t even nominated for the FecEx Ground Player of the Week. Instead Matt Forte (25-145 and one TD), Arian Foster (25-115-2) and DeMarco Murray (25-253-1) were the nominees.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.