Rutgers quarterbacks seek improvement

Gary Nova doesn't like to think about whether Rutgers' starting quarterback job might be his to lose.

He doesn't want to get ahead of himself. He doesn't want to focus on his lost repetitions, about how he started 28 career games and is now splitting time with two inexperienced candidates. And he doesn't want his thoughts to linger on last season, when he threw 13 touchdown passes in the first five games and 10 interceptions in the next five.

The senior quarterback wants a clean slate and, with that, he needs to start over and reclaim his spot. So even when Nova is asked whether he's the favorite to win the job, or whether he might have the slight edge, he bats down the mere thought.

"I try not to think about it like that. I try to have a humble mindset and just go out there and try to earn it every day," Nova said. "You just got to prepare as you're the starter, whether you end up as first string or third string."

Nova's photo still graces the front of Rutgers' football facility, the Hale Center, but his inconsistency has also led to the this spring's muddled quarterback picture. A New Jersey native, he led the Scarlet Knights to a 4-1 record last season and then struggled to 1-4 before being replaced for the final three games of the season. He experienced a similar up and down in 2012, when he led Rutgers to a 7-0 start and then watched his team lose four of its next six games; he threw 13 picks to seven touchdowns in that stretch.

Fans often discussed Nova's "poise beyond his years" when he was younger, but now they're wondering if he'll spend his senior season as a starter or a second-stringer. He took all of Rutgers' first-team reps last spring, but now he's sharing them with redshirt freshman Chris Laviano and redshirt junior Mike Bimonte. Neither has taken a snap in a game.

"I'd say it's rough because, obviously, you want all the reps in the spring," Nova said. "The more reps you get, the better because of the short practices. But it's out of my hands, it's coach's decision. I just have to get the reps I can and watch film."

Head coach Kyle Flood is hoping to push his senior quarterback, and Nova's teammates are looking to do the same. Laviano acknowledged he's not playing well enough to be the starter -- at least not this spring -- but Bimonte believed neither himself nor Nova have separated themselves quite yet.

Bimonte and Nova routinely room together in the spring, and they've been trying to parlay the added competition into added improvement. Nova has taken extra care to throw the ball away when a play's dead and avoid low-percentage passes. He's trying to turn around his reputation for turnovers, and Bimonte is trying to prove he belongs under center -- even if both are trying to avoid the confrontation that such a competition usually brings.

"I don't know if we really look at it as going against each other," Bimonte said. "We just try to focus on getting better. I don't think there's anyone in the country who's closer than me and Gary, especially since we're two quarterbacks who came in the same class.

"I've tried to help Gary, Gary's always tried to help me, and that's how it's always going to be with us."

The two might sit next to each other on their apartment couch, yelling and talking trash during some heated games of NBA 2K14. But they're mild-mannered on the field and in the film room once they trade in their joysticks for playbooks.

For now, they're just focused on themselves. Bimonte wants find his rhythm quicker; Nova wants to improve his accuracy and decision-making. With a challenging schedule -- one that features Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan State on the road -- the quarterbacks know they can't afford to lose sight of what's most important.

"We know what's at stake," Nova said, "so we're all helping each other out, even if we're all competing for the job."

For now, that's all Flood can really expect. Even as most eyes rest on the competition and as fans wonder what lies ahead for Rutgers' most experienced quarterback, Bimonte and Nova are trying to emphasize something else. And they're hoping the big question surrounding this race will work itself out naturally.

"We're trying not to get caught up into the big picture," Bimonte said. "I think we really do have the same goal -- and that's just to get better."