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It could be a weekend new Auburn starting quarterback TJ Finley never forgets.
On Saturday, he will start for the first time for Auburn (6-4, 3-3 SEC) when it plays at South Carolina (5-5, 2-5 SEC) at 6 p.m. on ESPN. And he may get to meet his idol again – former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, who led the Tigers to the national championship and won the Heisman Trophy in the 2010 season.
Newton may be at the game in Columbia, S.C., as it’s just a 90-minute drive from Charlotte, N.C., where Newton may be starting at quarterback for the Carolina Panthers for the first time since 2019 on Sunday. The Panthers (5-5) play Washington (3-6) at noon on FOX.
Newton, who had been out of football since New England released him on Aug. 31, signed a one-year deal on Nov. 11 with his former Panthers team that he took to the Super Bowl in the 2015 season. He played briefly in a 34-10 win over Arizona three days later, rushing for and passing for touchdowns.
“I think we’re probably trending that way,” Carolina coach Matt Ruhle said Wednesday of the possibility of Newton starting.
“A week before he signed, he called me, and we went through a devotional together,” Finley said of Newton on Wednesday. “I don’t want to say the things that he told me, but it was a lot of stuff talked about. I know I’m getting emotional right now about it, because the things we talked about came to fruition.”
Because of an ankle injury suffered by Auburn regular starting quarterback Bo Nix in a 43-34 loss to Mississippi State on Saturday, Finley is the Tigers’ new starter.
“It’s always bad news when the starter goes down,” Finley said. “As we know, a lot of injuries take place, and the backup guys have to be prepared to play. I’ve been preparing like a starter since I got here.”
A sophomore transfer from LSU, Finley got his first chance at prolonged playing time at Auburn when Nix was benched against Georgia State on Sept. 25 with Auburn trailing 24-12.
Finley helped lead the Tigers back for a 34-24 win, completing 9 of 16 passes for 97 yards with a 10-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Shedrick Johnson with 45 seconds left on fourth down for a 25-24 lead. He then threw a two-point conversion completion to wide receiver Kobe Hudson for a 27-24 lead.
Nix returned to the starting lineup the next week and led Auburn to a win over LSU. Finley has completed 17 of 33 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions in six games as a backup.
“Now, it’s his opportunity to go out there and play the entire game,” Auburn coach Bryan Harsin said. “As far as his mindset, he’s been very good. Now, he’s got to go out there and do it in practice and show up in the game.”
Finley, who signed with LSU in its 2020 class out of Ponchatoula High as a three-star pro style quarterback, started five games last season at LSU. He completed 80 of 140 passes for 941 yards and five touchdowns with five interceptions as the Tigers went 2-3. His first start was also against South Carolina, and it was his best game as he completed 17 of 21 for 265 yards and two touchdowns with an interception in a 52-24 win at Tiger Stadium.
Finley completed 13 of 24 passes for 145 yards with two interceptions in a 48-11 loss at Auburn on Halloween last season. He threw a 13-yard touchdown pass with 3:59 remaining to win, 27-24, at Arkansas on Nov. 21 of last season.
“Yeah, man, me and my family talked about that Monday morning that my first start at LSU was also against South Carolina, so it’s just a blessing,” Finley said. “I don’t believe in coincidences. I thank God has a plan for everything. God has a purpose for everything. I’m just going to go out there and do what I did last year and play composed, be consistent and do my job and get the job done.”
What a coincidence, though, that Newton is also suddenly playing again.
“He’s one of the most inspirational people in my life,” Finley said. “I’ve looked up to him since I was a little kid, and to say that he’s reaching out to me as a little brother and helping me throughout my path in college football, it means a lot to me. And I pray that we continue to have those conversations.”
Finley, who grew to 6-foot-7 in high school, met the 6-5 Newton when he was a senior at Ponchatoula High at a seven-on-seven camp. And he was no longer looking up to him, at least literally.
“I think I was already taller than him,” Finley said. “I stood out above everybody, and he came and introduced himself. At the time, I was committed to LSU, so we had no connection. Ever since then, we’ve connected here and there on Instagram.”
And Newton called Finley after his breakthrough game against Georgia State. It was a nearby area code in Atlanta, so Finley picked up expecting to hear from someone he knew.
“And it was him,” Finley said. “I was just like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this is happening.’ I guess he got my number from his little brother (Caylin Newton, a wide receiver at Auburn). We talk a lot.”