Nova’s reformation sees early returns
Gary Nova leads the Big East in passing touchdowns this season, ranks third in pass efficiency and improved his completion percentage more than 10 points as a sophomore.
But the Rutgers football team’s quarterback spent as much time in the offseason avoiding receivers as throwing to them.
“There were probably drills where guys were open,” Nova said, “and I’d try throwing it away, throwing it at the ground, throwing it at their feet.”
It was part of a philosophy to condition Nova to use sounder decision-making.
During the summer, Nova threw the ball out of bounds in seven-on-seven drills instead of tucking it and running. He tossed passes aside on one-on-one scenarios when receivers did not separate from defenders.
And he did so with no prior background in the craft.
“It was hard,” Nova said. “You’re not used to doing that in high school. I probably threw the ball [away] once in high school in two years. You probably throw it away three times in a game [now].”
On the verge of a matchup with Kent State tomorrow, Nova says he is better for it.
At Don Bosco (N.J.) Prep, Nova rarely had to go through progressions in the pocket. If wide receiver Leonte Carroo, now a Scarlet Knights freshman, was not open, he deferred to running back Paul Canevari, a former Knights fullback, Nova said.
“That’s how it was in high school,” he said. “Nobody could stop Leonte, so why not keep throwing it to him?”
But following a freshman season in which Nova lost for the first time since Pop Warner and recorded double-digit giveaways, he took to a new philosophy.
He enlisted the help of quarterbacks coach Rob Spence, part of a coaching overhaul after former head coach Greg Schiano’s abrupt January departure. And he learned the art of giving up on plays.
The work has paid dividends.
Nova has won Big East Offensive Player of the Week honors twice, and Rutgers is undefeated this late in the season for the first time since 2006.
“The bottom line is he’s a winner,” Carroo said. “That’s what he loves to do is win. That’s the biggest thing he does.”
Nova has had help.
He worked with a position coach in each of his three seasons as a starter, including two at the Ramsey, N.J., high school powerhouse, where he learned under Nunzio Campanile.
Campanile, now head coach at Bergen Catholic (N.J.) High School, played the position at Paramus Catholic (N.J.) before suiting up at Amherst College. Nova also learned along the way from Anthony Campanile, Nunzio’s brother and now a Rutgers graduate assistant; and former Rutgers offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, now quarterbacks coach of the St. Louis Rams.
“He has taken his knowledge of the offense a little bit further every week,” said head coach Kyle Flood. “As that happens, he’ll have more things available to him.”
Flood said he did not open up the offense at Temple in the second half Oct. 20, when Nova accounted for more than 75 percent of his pass yards and four touchdowns. Rutgers trailed in that game like it did Sept. 22 at Arkansas, when Nova tossed three second-half scores and recorded career highs in touchdowns, pass yards and completions.
But Nova’s track record with deficits stretches back to his junior season at Don Bosco.
The Ironmen stared down a one-point hole at Prattville (Ala.) High School before Nova threw two touchdowns in the last 8:27.
“That’s pretty much the best team Bosco’s ever played,” Carroo said.
Nunzio Campanile was in the last of 10 seasons as offensive coordinator then before Anthony took over the following season. Their older brother, Vito, also played quarterback at Paramus and still holds a few state records, Caroo said.
“Those guys know a lot about football and really work me hard,” Nova said.
But Nova’s toughest lessons came this summer, when he had to acclimate his body — and conscience — to let plays go. He says his expectations have not budged — he would like to complete more than 70 percent of his passes, improve his patience and let plays develop.
But arguably Nova’s most defining plays this season have been the ones he did not make.
“I think it’s just one more experience that in the future he’ll be able to draw from and say, ‘Hey, I remember how this feels and I remember how we reacted to it,’” Flood said of Nova’s performance at Temple. “We need to do that again.”
For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow Tyler Barto on Twitter @TBartoTargum.