Nova learns from humility, tries to win back starting job in spring practice
When Rutgers head football coach Kyle Flood benched Gary Nova for the final three games last season, losing a streak of 28 straight starts was the least of the quarterback’s worries.
Nova experienced a sense of humility — a wake-up call that he needed to find a way to reinvent himself. After the Scarlet Knights started the year 4-1, the former Don Bosco (N.J.) Prep star fell into another second-half slump, tossing 10 interceptions as Rutgers lost four of five games.
That prompted Flood to make a change with former Knight Chas Dodd, who helped Rutgers salvage an appearance in the 2013 New Era Pinstripe Bowl against Notre Dame.
Nova, heralded as the face of a program on the cusp of its first BCS Bowl, had hit rock bottom. Searching for answers, he took a hard look in the mirror and critiqued himself in the film room over the offseason.
Speaking to the media yesterday for the first time since his last start Nov. 21 at Central Florida, the senior opened up about his struggles.
“There were times where I just tried to force the ball last year,” Nova said. “Things weren’t going right for us on offense, and I think I kind of went back to trying to just make things happen, trying to put everything on my shoulders. There was no need to do that, but I’m just looking forward to this year. I’ve learned from it and just got to move forward.”
Coming into the spring, Flood listed Nova and four others with no game appearances as co-starters in an open quarterback competition.
The third-year head coach insisted ball security and decision-making will transcend experience level in ultimately determining the starter going into the Big Ten.
Nova, whose talent has offered sporadic glimpses of brilliance, fights for one last chance to evolve his game. He has a career 54.7 completion percentage with 51 touchdowns to 39 interceptions in three seasons.
“When you turn the ball over and you make a lot of mistakes, you can’t win like that,” Nova said. “We weren’t playing winning football [last year]. Even in some of the games we won, there were last-second plays here and there, we kind of just squeaked it out. ... When you first lose, it’s kind of a shock, but when you watch the tape it’s no surprise why we lost those games.”
Now in the third week of spring practice, Nova, junior Mike Bimonte and redshirt freshman Chris Laviano are splitting first-team reps. Redshirt freshman walk-on Devin Ray remains a distant fourth candidate, while sophomore Blake Rankin opted to transfer yesterday.
The 6-foot-4 Bimonte, who lacks game experience but has received plenty of practice reps, stood out in Saturday’s scrimmage with 6-of-8 passing for 108 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown toss.
“I think from an experience standpoint, Gary and Mike are a little bit ahead of Chris,” Flood said. “I think that showed up [Saturday], which is natural. That’s not unexpected, but all three guys are going to continue to get reps.”
Laviano, viewed as perhaps as the biggest threat to Nova from a talent standpoint, said he feels he has done well through seven practices with the reps he has had to work with.
But the Glen Head, N.Y., native understands that despite his lack of experience running the offense, the coaching staff holds each candidate to the same standard.
“Every day so far has been new stuff, new installs,” Laviano said. “The mental part for myself is just doing everything, knowing everything, making quick decisions even when you’re right or wrong, and just getting the whole offense down is pretty big.”
The other quarterbacks have similarly had to take in new terminology and schemes under the teaching of Ralph Friedgen, Rutgers’ fourth offensive coordinator in four seasons.
The 67-year-old coaching veteran has commanded several players’ respect. Nova said Friedgen brings fresh plays and philosophies the team is “excited” about.
Few need a fresh start more than the senior, who insists he never felt slighted by Flood’s decision to open the quarterback competition this spring.
“It’s just a challenge,” Nova said. “I’ve been here long enough, been through a lot of ups, a lot of downs. When coach made that decision, you’ve got to respect it — just got to go out there and earn your spot.”
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