PISCATAWAY - When Gary Nova was last seen on the football field in meaningful action, the Rutgers quarterback was a shell of the gunslinger that began his first season starting with so much promise.
Nova was looking for answers after his late-season slump coincided with the Scarlet Knights dropping their final three games, including a 20-17 home setback to Louisville that cost them their first Bowl Championship Series berth, and a 13-10 overtime loss to Virginia Tech in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Nova struggled in both contests, completing just 44 percent of his passes with three interceptions. He then had to defend why he should be the unquestioned starter heading into what figured to be a tumultuous offseason.
But as a result of a solid spring camp and an even better preseason, Nova has renewed confidence as Rutgers opens the season Thursday night at Fresno State.
"I think it's all learning through experience and having that year under my belt," said Nova, who despite his inconsistencies already ranks sixth in school history with 4,248 career passing yards, 337 completions and 33 touchdowns in just two seasons. "We have a lot of high expectations set for this team but obviously the journey begins Thursday."
As Rutgers tries to focus on its present conference home and not on its future in the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights' quest to win the American Athletic Conference title partly rests on the right shoulder of Nova, who dropped 10 pounds since last season to increase his mobility and has shown better accuracy throughout preseason camp.
"From the moment that bowl game ended, I thought every time I got a chance to watch him do something he was doing it just a little bit better," said Rutgers coach Kyle Flood, whose team finished 9-4 and gained a share of the program's first Big East title in his first season last fall. "I think (with) all the details of playing that position and what that position means to a football team, he has a better understanding now than he did a year ago, which only makes sense.
"Some of that knowledge you can only gain by playing and experiencing really high highs and some other games that you are not as crazy about. He went through all those experiences and came out of it a really determined football player."
It was Flood who, despite Nova having thrown for just 570 yards on 48-for-105 passing with four interceptions over his team's three consecutive losses to end last season, curiously offered his embattled quarterback a vote of confidence following a stinging bowl defeat.
"I am confident," Flood said. "Gary is our starting quarterback."
Flood was seemingly unfazed by the media and fan criticism that ensued. And now his loyalty has appeared to pay off as Nova left no doubts that he's the best passer in a program seeking a league title in its lone season in the AAC.
"I think Gary is a very mentally tough football player," said Flood, whose team returns eight offensive starters but just four on defense as it travels across the country to face an explosive Bulldogs attack powered by star quarterback Derek Carr. "The most obvious outward sign is his ability to coach the other players. That's something that - for a younger quarterback - does not always come naturally."
It's one reason why Nova, whose first full season starting was highlighted by a five-touchdown effort at Arkansas and low-lighted by a six-interception debacle versus Kent State, was selected as one of four team captains this season. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound product out of New Jersey high school power Don Bosco Prep was the only junior chosen in an offseason vote by his teammates.
"Going into my junior year, I feel much more prepared knowing what to expect now," Nova said. "You don't win games in the offseason. It all depends on what I do (in games). I understand that. That's why I don't (buy into) all that praise in that offseason stuff ... because it doesn't mean anything if I don't perform the way I'm supposed to on Thursday."