Turning over a Newell leaf

Finally 100 percent healthy for the first time in a year and a half, Jimmy Newell entered football training camp at the University of Washington with high hopes of earning the starting free safety position.

But halfway through camp, he tore the tendon off a bone in his right thumb.

For a few hours after the injury, the former South Kitsap High star thought his season was up in the air.

“It was like, ‘Ah man, when am I going to catch a break?’ ” Newell said.

The injury bug first hit him after the 2000 season when he injured his shoulder.

Newell said he was hopeful surgery in April of 2001 would allow him to be fully recovered for the fall season.

But the shoulder was slow to heal, which pushed his rehabilitation back.

Not able to lift weights, Newell lost considerable amount of weight.

He returned to play the first three games of the 2001 season but struggled with the shoulder and opted to redshirt the season.

Now slated as a starter, the redshirt sophomore entered the season with high hopes, only to see those hopes slightly derailed with the thumb injury.

But the team doctor eased his mind with a good prognosis.

“He said I’d be in a cast for five weeks, but I could play,” Newell said.

He said a cast on his hand isn’t going to slow him down.

The only thing that can slow down Newell is if he gets outplayed by freshman Evan Benjamin, who has been lauded for his stellar play during training camp.

Despite Benjamin’s progress, Newell said he thinks the starting nod will go to him.

The starting secondary will consist of Greg Carothers at strong safety and Newell at free safety, but Benjamin will find time in the secondary, too, Newell said.

“He’s had a great camp,” he said. “All three of us are going to play a lot.”

Newell said the only thing he can control is what he does on the football field.

Experience and an improved physique will play a big part in Newell’s season.

“I’m over 200 pounds for the first time in my life,” Newell said. “All my strength numbers have improved and the coaches have built up my confidence.”

Newell said there’s only one hindrance to having a cast on his hand.

“Where it limits me is my ability to grab hold of the jersey,” Newell said. “But at free safety, that isn’t accounted for in blocks. I just have to wrap up with my arms. I can catch balls just fine.”

Newell, who graduated from South Kitsap in 2000, said it amazes him that he is now considered a veteran despite playing in only 15 games.

“I feel like I’ve been here a million years, yet I still have three years of eligibility,” Newell said.

Newell said he attributes his role as a veteran to experience he gained as a freshman playing behind starters Hakim Akbar and the late Curtis Williams.

“I gained huge learning experience from getting to play behind Hakim and Curtis,” Newell said. “There were two NFL-quality safeties, and I got to learn from them everything about the game.”

Newell’s experience will be tested right away when he makes his UW debut as a starter at Michigan this Saturday.

“It’s going to be wild,” he said. “There’s 108,000 fans, and most of them are Michigan fans. It’s going to be a hostile crowd, but I’ve been told it doesn’t get loud like Autzen Stadium (Oregon).”

Newell learned as a freshman what fans are like at Oregon and he will be back to endure it again this year.

“Yeah, we go down there again, but (the fans) only affect the freshmen who are clueless like I was,” he said. “When I was there I heard someone keep yelling my name and I thought it was my father. But then the fan said ‘Newell, hey Newell, you suck.’ ”

He laughs about the hostility now. It’s his play on the field that will speak volumes.

“Every game is a tough game,” Newell said. “The Pac-10 annually beats up on each other. But nothing feels better than beating Oregon.”

Barring another injury, Newell said he’s poised to have a good season.

While he has physically and mentally prepared for the season, he also gives a lot of credit to his parents Lorie and Jim Newell.

“They’ve never missed a game,” Newell said. “If we played in Siberia they’d show up.”

With the support of family and friends, Newell said he’s ready to make a statement and help guide the team to another Rose Bowl appearance, if not a title appearance at the Fiesta Bowl.

At SK, Newell starred as the team’s quarterback and cornerback, though it was his play in the secondary that led to his national exposure.

While he could depend on his speed and 38.5 inch vertical jump, Newell said the preparation and discipline at SK helped with the transition to the college game.

But he also said there are some things about the college game that no high school program can prepare players for.

“The college game is a lot faster, and it’s taken a lot more seriously,” Newell said. “In high school you are the fastest on the team, but you’re in the middle of the pack in college. The playbook in college is a lot more complex. It’s always fun to watch a freshman tailback learn the new plays. I’m sure (2002 SK grad) Ryan (Cole) is feeling that right now at Oregon State.”

What Newell is feeling right now is an excitement he hasn’t felt since he starred at SK. He said he understands the pressure to perform well, especially as a starter. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said.

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