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September 11, 2012

Senior quarterback takes on H-back role

Throw a pass? These days, Morgan Newton is throwing blocks.

The senior quarterback caught glimpses of both his past and his future in Saturday's 47-14 win over Kent State. He lined up as a quarterback and took snaps in a short yardage package for the second straight game, spelling starter Maxwell Smith.

But he also found himself on the field lined up in the slot and on the end of the offensive line. It's part of a new role offensive coordinator Randy Sanders is establishing for Newton, where he plays H-back and moves around the field.

"We don't have many guys with his size and speed," Sanders said. "You don't have enough guys like that. I told him last spring, if he wasn't the starting quarterback, he wasn't going to stand beside me. We were going to do something."

He was only in for a handful of plays, but he drew attention when he blocked for freshman wide receiver Demarcus Sweat on a short reception that turned into a 56-yard touchdown pass.

That was the first time he had been asked to block since his little league days, when he exceeded the weight limit to play at a skill position and was forced to play with the linemen. Newton had barely spent time working at the new position in practice.

"We kind of threw him out there in the game without really practicing it," graduate assistant Andre Woodson said. "We wanted to see exactly what he could do. He did a pretty good job at it, so I think we'll investigate it a little more."

Sanders first spoke to Newton about the possibility of a new role in the offense after spring practice. Newton missed all of spring as he recovered from a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. He had the chance to compete for the starting quarterback job in the fall, but even if he didn't win it, he knew he would be on the field somehow.

Newton's combination of size, athleticism and strength made him a fit at H-back, a position similar to tight end. With Anthony Kendrick out for academic reasons and Gabe Correll suffering from a nagging hip flexor on Saturday, Newton's time to find his way back on the field came.

He didn't register any official statistics at his new spot, though he did have a rushing attempt from under center. The numbers

"I feel like if you can't catch and throw, what kind of athlete are you?" Newton said. "Quarterbacks catch just as many times as receivers do. We throw it to them, then they throw it back. I feel like people should be able to catch if they want to play."

With a little time and some more ingenuity, things could get even more interesting. Newton's skill set opens the offense up to "endless" possibilities in gadget plays. Lined up in the slot, he could take a reverse or a backwards pass and rifle it downfield to an open receiver. He could line up under center, moving another quarterback out wide to confuse the offense.

"It could get really fun if they wanted," Newton said.

He's been eager to get back to the practice field in his new role. Newton still spends almost all of his time with the quarterbacks, and would likely replace Smith in the case of an injury, but the new role is his fastest route to get on the field for now.

That knowledge has helped him handle the move from starter last year to backup this season.

"I think it would be tough if you thought you were supposed to be playing quarterback," Newton said. "But Max is playing well."

There's still more to come. Head coach Joker Phillips said Newton spent most of his time in practice last week as an H-back running routes, not blocking. He'll keep working at that, and as quarterback.

One way or another, he's going to play. But Newton can find the field in more than one way now.

"He's a really big guy. He's physically gifted," Woodson said. "He can do anything. We knew somehow, we had to get him on the football field."


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