NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - OCTOBER 29: Gary Nova #15 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights prepares to take a snap against the West Virginia Mountaineers at High Point Solutions Stadium on October 29, 2011 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
At first glance, there would be appear to be an open competition brewing under center for the Scarlet Knights this fall. Rutgers returns a top defense, and is loaded at the skill positions, although the line is the same question mark that it has been for a while. Still, Rutgers arguably would have won the Big East last year if they had received better quarterback play, and now both underclassmen from 2011 return with another year of experience under their belt. Narrative #1 from now through September, and possibly even further into the season, will be about who will be taking most of the snaps for the Scarlet Knights. On paper, Gary Nova and Chas Dodd offer similar stat lines; Dodd completed more passes, while Nova registered more yards per attempt - or so the story goes.
That is important, sure, but it might just be a tad overplayed. Last season showed the value of a ball control offense in propping up a good defense. Rutgers couldn't really run the ball except for a few bright spots against Cincinnati and Iowa State late in the season, where Jawan Jamison stood out, and the patchwork line started to gel. Just by showing a commitment to the run though, that was enough to get by. Throw a few passes here and there to move the chains, have Mohamed Sanu bail out the team time and again on third down, and the requisite special teams scores, and Rutgers was back in business. That is not sustainable to some extent - we saw early in the year how Rutgers was getting rich on turnovers, and that really came down to earth. Not just did the luck stop, it reversed, with mistakes under center costing Rutgers dearly against Louisville and West Virginia.
Gary Nova's green, freshman mistakes were indeed problematic in those instances, and yet still, it is difficult to escape the growing consensus that the starting job is going to be his to lose in a few weeks. Indeed, this is a conclusion that came to a lot of people last year. Nova really did blow it in some games, but he just showed something - a poise beyond his years. Nova is a good touch passer, and his completion percentage betrays how accurate he is. The ball goes where Nova wants it to, that's clear from watching the games. No, his problem isn't accuracy - it's forcing balls into double and triple coverage. Plain and simple, he has to improve his decision making, and in theory that's what should come with more experience.
Beyond watching the games, and the steady buzz about Gary being the guy, simple logic dictates that he should have the edge. Nova was the most famous in-state quarterback recruit in New Jersey since his fellow Don Bosco alumnus Mike Teel, and was a fairly-regarded recruit as a result. In contrast, Chas Dodd was relatively overlooked in a spread offense (mostly due to his lack of height), despite playing with just as many DI teammates as Nova. Not that recruiting rankings mean a whole ton once the pads come on, but there was a strong consensus in favor of Nova's raw talent, and that does count for something. More than that, he's younger, has more eligibility, and again, in-game experience. They both have strong arms, with Nova's being a bit better than was alleged in high school, but Gary has more touch on his passes. Chas's deep ball is like a rocket, but it gets away from him
There is surely an element of uncertainty to all of this. Chas could make the leap in August, just as Gary could, and more power to either if they are capable of developing into a leader that can take Rutgers to a prestigious bowl game this year. That being said, all of the available tea leaves are pointing in Nova's direction, and it will be a considerable upset if he does not seize the starting job. The last thing Rutgers needs is another quarterback controversy; if you have two, then you essentially have one. It's great if one player can settle everything once and for all, but absent that, you pick one early so he can build momentum, chemistry with teammates, and rapport/leadership skills with those same guys.
Fortunately, for the first time in a while Rutgers boasts some degree of depth at this spot, not being at the complete whim or mercy of a hypothetical injury. There's confidence that if one goes down, the other guy isn't say, Johnny McEntee-level bad. Two injuries would be a bit more of a challenge, but it would be for anyone, and if all goes to play RU is a year away from having very good depth here. For now, freshman Mike Bimonte has finished up his redshirt. Bimonte was seen as a supremely raw prospect coming out of high school with good potential and physical attributes. Realistically, he may be a year or two from a fair evaluation, much less competing for a job. That has led to some speculation about incoming recruit Blake Rankin. Rankin is a true double threat, who is a legitimate weapon with either throwing or running. The thing is though, how realistic is it for Rutgers to throw ANOTHER true freshman into the fire for the fourth consecutive year? We've seen that song and dance before, and it just does not end well. Talk up Rankin all you want, but he is realistically an option for 2014 and beyond.
For now, Gary Nova is the odds-on favorite to be the guy, and offers a fair amount of optimism that he can be the best Rutgers quarterback in some time. Obviously the line will have to come together, new offensive coordinator Dave Brock will need to prove capable, Brandon Coleman and Mark Harrison will have to hold on to a few more passes, play action will need to be a threat and such, but those are going to be challenges whether or not Rutgers can find a caretaker or a dynamic weapon to fling the rock. That's the whole point - Rutgers is not going to live or die by QB play this year. It would be nice, certainly - that's a fair feeling a year after falling just short. Still, in a best case scenario, Rutgers has enough talent where it can win in defense in spite of bad play here. If everything goes poorly, then a flurry of interceptions certainly won't help matters, but is not going to be the defining margin between victory and defeat. This may well be the biggest part of the puzzle, but it remains only one part, and the Knights will win or lose this year based on far more than the unique contributions of one marquee position.