For the few weeks they trained together at the IMG Academy in Florida, Christian Ponder always knew when he could find Cam Newton – first thing in the morning.
“It was great to have him so he could push me. I think we're so competitive we always try to one-up the other guy,” Ponder said Wednesday. “The earlier he would come in to throw and watch film, the earlier I would try to get there. He's really competitive and he's well-natured, and I enjoyed being with him.”
The rookie quarterbacks and training partners will meet Sunday at Bank of America Stadium when Ponder gets his second start for Minnesota.
Though the Vikings (1-6) lost to Green Bay 33-27 in Ponder's first start after replacing Donovan McNabb, the former Florida State standout drew praise for his resiliency following a pair of third-quarter interceptions.
Ponder threw for 219 yards and two touchdowns. And while only he completed 13 of 32 passes, eight of those completions covered 12 yards or more.
Ponder became the fourth quarterback from this year's draft class to start a game this season. Andy Dalton, who went to Cincinnati in the second round, has the Bengals off to a 4-2 start.
Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert, the 10th overall pick, won his first game Monday night when the Jaguars upset Baltimore.
Meanwhile, Newton has been re-writing the rookie record books since throwing for 422 yards in a Week 1 loss at Arizona. Newton, fourth in the league with 2,103 passing yards, is the first player in NFL history to pass for seven touchdowns and run for seven scores in his first seven games.
Ponder, picked 12th by the Vikings, is not surprised by Newton's success.
“I got to know him pretty well. He's a great guy,” Ponder said during a conference call with Charlotte media. “He's had an awesome year so far. And it's not surprising. The guy works extremely hard and is so enthusiastic about the game of football. I'm happy for him. It'll be a fun game.”
Ponder said Newton lived on a different part of campus at IMG, a sprawling sports academy in Bradenton that was originally founded as a training center for tennis prodigies. Though the two didn't spend a lot of time together socially, there was a mutual respect.
Newton even had a nickname for Ponder.
“I call him Ponderosa. Good guy, man,” Newton said. “We had a couple weeks to get to know each other, along with that whole draft process. Not only me and Christian, but every (quarterback). You hear so much about each other, to have an opportunity to work out on a day-to-day basis with each other, it's amazing. He’s a good guy. And his work ethic is unbelievable.”
Newton and Ponder have something in common this season – both were intercepted twice by Charles Woodson, the Packers' Pro Bowl cornerback. Newton has nine turnovers – all interceptions and all coming in the Panthers' five losses.
Newton, who has yet to lose a fumble, had no giveaways in the team's two victories.
“In all those games, if I wouldn't have had a turnover, I think we'd probably be undefeated right now. I'm not saying that just to say that. I believe that,” Newton said. “You look at Green Bay, I admire those guys. Like I said, they play with a swagger. But most importantly they play smart football. You see Aaron Rodgers throwing for a ton of yards. But you don't see him having three touchdowns and three interceptions. That's not happening.”
The Panthers will try to pressure Ponder, as they did last week against the Redskins' John Beck, who was making his first start since 2007. But defensive end Charles Johnson said the Panthers can't assume Ponder will get rattled because of his lack of experience.
“You can't go off him being a rookie. There's a lot of good rookies out there playing good (at) quarterback,” Johnson said. “Just look at his last game. He threw for a good bit of passing yards in his first time starting. So you've got to play him just like any other quarterback.”
Leading up to the draft, most analysts thought the quarterback class could be among the best in years. While the early returns are promising, Ponder said it's too soon to start comparing this group to the class of 1983 that featured John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly.
“Obviously, we haven't proven ourselves yet. But we hope we get there,” Ponder said. “A lot of guys are having a lot of early success. I don't really know what to attribute that to. But it's exciting to see everyone do well.”