It only took one day into training camp for the most polarizing Rutgers football player to spark passionate debate among fans. In the comments section of Griffin’s article from yesterday, on social media, and in chat rooms on other sites, the reality that Chris Laviano may again be the starting quarterback for this season started to sink in. In my opinion, he enters his redshirt junior season as the most interesting player on the roster. Reasons include his up and down play last season, his potential, his persona, and the position battle he is currently in, as he attempts to keep his position atop the depth chart this season.
Right or wrong, Laviano became the poster boy for the frustrations that fans had with Rutgers football last season. That is part of the deal in being the starting quarterback. The player at that position typically receives more credit than deserved when the team wins, and too much criticism when the team loses. There is no denying his play deserved to be criticized at times last season. However, one part of the problem with Laviano last season had little to do with the player himself.
Former head coach Kyle Flood didn’t do Laviano any favors on the field last season. His unwillingness to make a change when Laviano was clearly struggling, and even looked beaten on the field at times, Flood never wavered in keeping him in the game. Being loyal and believing in a player like Flood did is a positive, but it got to a point where it actually became a detriment to Laviano’s development as a player. There was a point during the rough four game stretch during Big Ten play that Laviano was better served sitting out, at least part of games, to gain perspective from the sideline. He took relentless punishment from opposing defenses last season and it was obvious he was worn down, both mentally and physically. Frustrations from fans towards his play was completely warranted.
With that being said, it’s time to give Laviano a clean slate entering this season. For some perspective, think about the overall quarterback play the program had in the four seasons with Flood as head coach. There were three seasons of subpar play, and one season of very good performances from that position. Think about how former Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova was perceived entering the 2014 season. He experienced much of the same vitriol that Laviano has gone through. Fans were fed up with Nova after three up and down seasons, and he was coming off a junior year in which he was benched at the end of it. Confidence in him leading Rutgers into their inaugural Big Ten season was very low.
Instead, Nova flourished on the field in 2014, with the lone exception being the horrid loss at home to Penn State. Even in that game, Nova played fearless, had a gutsy run for the only Rutgers touchdown of the game, and while he threw 5 interceptions, at least two were not his fault. The truth is Rutgers never would have beaten Michigan and Maryland that season without superb performances from Nova. In the end, he delivered.
So what changed? Coaching. Quarterback whisperer Ralph Friedgen came on board that season specifically to coach Nova and elevate his play. Mission accomplished. Nova also matured as a leader and represented the program with class that season. He also had his best season statistically by a wide margin. Nova finished third in the Big Ten in passer rating, touchdown passes, yards per attempt, and fourth in total passing yards. He was clearly the third best quarterback in the conference during the 2014 season, behind Ohio State’s freshman sensation J.T. Barrett and Michigan State’s Connor Cook. It was an impressive way to end his career at Rutgers.
So what does Gary Nova have to do with Chris Laviano? The opportunity for Laviano to improve and become a competent quarterback under the new coaching staff is even greater for him than it was for Nova. Head coach Chris Ash and offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer seem like they are holding Laviano, as well as the entire team, more accountable for their actions and holding them to a higher standard. They also appear to have the coaching acumen to put players in the right spots and prepare them to succeed. While the spread offense isn’t a natural fit for Laviano, it’s likely Mehringer will build the offense in a way that he can be successful. It seems their message has translated, as Ash had this to say earlier in the week during his presser after practice:
“Chris Laviano had a great summer. He was one of our most consistent players on the team, not just the quarterback position. His work ethic, his attitude, his commitment to himself completely changed. And he was fun to watch this summer, so he earned the right to go out and take reps with the first team.”
When Ash was asked what changed, he went into more detail:
“Well, what I saw this summer, which I didn’t necessarily see in the spring, was I thought he did a better job of providing leadership. I thought he did a better job of earning the trust of others with the way he conducted himself, but he has to do it on the practice field. Doing it in the weight room and doing it in conditioning is one thing. Doing it when you put the helmet on and line up behind center taking the snap and doing it consistently to the level that guys trust you and believe in you, that’s a whole other thing. So we have to see if Chris can do that. We have to see if any of those quarterbacks can do that.”
Encouraging words from a coach that so far, hasn’t appeared to be anything but genuine and selective when praising players to the media. Ash wouldn’t be saying positives about Laviano if he didn’t believe it to be true. His comments also signal that it’s likely Ash and Mehringer had a heart to heart with Laviano after spring practice about expectations and what he needed to do in order to be successful within the program moving forward. Positive results have followed. Laviano still has a lot to prove, but there is reason for optimism.
Now that it’s clear Laviano is in a better situation coaching wise than last season, let’s compare his statistics from last season with Nova the year before his stellar 2014 campaign.
Nova: 165-303 comp-att, 54.5 completion %, 2,159 passing yards, 7.1 yards per attempt, 18 TD’s, 14 INT’s, 124.7 QB rating
Laviano: 187-307 comp-att, 60.9 completion %, 2,247 passing yards, 7.3 yards per attempt, 16 TD’s 12 INT’s, 131.8 QB rating
Laviano had a better statistical year than Nova, and it was just his first season as the starter. Nova was in his third season as the starter during his junior year. Another key point is that Nova actually played a far weaker schedule than Laviano, as the 2013 season Rutgers played in the AAC, which is not exactly on par with the Big Ten. Despite the step up in competition the following season, Nova flourished and developed into the quarterback we always hoped he would become. Friedgen’s coaching and mentoring was the single biggest factor in this occurring. This isn’t meant as a jab towards Nova in any way regarding his career prior to his last season. It is meant to highlight the positives and refocus expectations for Laviano.
The bottom line is all Rutgers fans should root for Chris Laviano this season. Aside from the fact that he is on our team, representing our great university, he deserves a second chance. Was it irresponsible of him to get caught with a fake ID last season? Of course. Was spiking the ball on fourth down in the closing seconds of a heartbreaking loss to Michigan State a bonehead play? No doubt. Was his retort to the boos during the Maryland game and his passionate plea through social media regarding Flood emotional and a bit misguided? Certainly. Was his inability to hit his receivers in stride and his lack of arm strength painfully frustrating to watch? Yes it was. Everyone makes mistakes, let’s give him an opportunity for redemption.
Throw it all out the window, use some disinfecting spray, and polish everything so it shines new. Give Laviano the benefit of the doubt and root for him to succeed this season. If he does win the starting quarterback job, there should be no doubt he earned it and the coaches feel he gives Rutgers the best chance to win. If he loses out to TCU transfer Zach Allen, it’s important Laviano handles it the right way and continues to be a leader for the rest of the team. And if he does become the backup, it’s unlikely in my opinion that he won’t have an opportunity to prove himself on the field at some point during the season. Allen hasn’t ever played a full month, let alone a full season, as the starting quarterback in his college career. It’s rare these days for one quarterback to stay healthy an entire season and being able to avoid missing time due to injury. Laviano must be ready to step in when called upon, if he does become the backup.
Laviano has the most experience of any signal caller on the roster. While it’s completely fair to criticize his arm strength from last season, it’s equally fair to wait and see if he has improved. His completion percentage could also improve this season in the new spread offense, making him more efficient. This highlight from yesterday’s practice was certainly encouraging to see from #5, hitting Vance Mathews in stride in tight coverage.
Laviano is said to be well liked by teammates, which I’ve read certain fans question as to why that is relevant. It’s important because it’s hard to like someone you do not respect. Laviano showed a lot of resolve and toughness last season. He took a beating early and often during games, and always picked himself up and never quit. If he does beat out Allen, he will have earned even more respect from his teammates. If he doesn’t, his reaction to it and how he conducts himself will be so important in keeping this team unified and on “The Hunt” this season. Allen went as much to praise Laviano this week for helping his transition into the program. So far, it seems competition has made Laviano better and perhaps his comfort in starting last season was also part of the problem. The fact that he has been welcoming to Allen is a positive sign regarding his maturity.
So I ask, please root for Chris Laviano, whether he becomes the starting quarterback or not. Will it be hard to temper frustrations when he under throws a receiver in a game this season? Yes it will. But please let this 21 year old college student have an opportunity to prove the doubters wrong this season. The doom and gloom attitude towards him being the starting quarterback this season is unfair. As the great and wise Mr. Miyagi once said, “do not blame the student, blame the teacher”. Laviano’s classroom changed in a big way since December. Let’s give him a chance to prove what he has learned.