The CFL, it has often been said, is a two quarterback league.
The importance of the passing game is so fundamentally crucial to team success that should a starter go down, the backup must perform at a nearly equivalent level just to tread water.
Right now, the B.C. Lions only have one quarterback. Or at least only one proven one.
There is no question that so long as Michael Reilly maintains the correct number of functioning limbs that he will take every snap possible. The stark reality is one that can never be guaranteed.
That makes the undecided backup quarterback spot one of the most heated battles in training camp and Canadian Nathan Rourke is right in the thick of it. Just don’t ask him what the outcome will be.
“Your guess is as good as mine at this point,” Rourke said with a smile when asked about his candidacy for the second-string job.
“I really don’t know. I mean, that’s the goal. The goal is to be the backup.”
Third-year man Will Arndt entered camp with the leg up on the job and former University of Michigan starter Shea Patterson brings a big school reputation with him, but the hopes of many Lions fans hang on Rourke, the team’s second round, 15th overall selection in the 2020 CFL Draft.
Traditionally, being a rookie and Canadian have rarely been positive indicators of early success at the quarterback position in the CFL, but Rourke might just be a different breed.
The Victoria-born, Oakville-raised dual threat passer was a dynamic three-year starter at the Ohio University, twice winning the Jon Cornish Trophy as the NCAA’s top Canadian player. Rourke passed for 7,475 yards and 70 touchdowns while also adding 2,639 yards and 49 touchdowns on the ground through 35 total games for the Bobcats.
The highest Canadian draftee at quarterback since Jesse Palmer way back in 2001, Rourke has to shoulder the expectations of a nation hungry for the next great Canadian passer. It’s a label that he accepts, but balances carefully against his own desire to be judged purely on merit.
“I don’t want to be on the field just because I am a Canadian quarterback. I don’t want to be given any special treatment because I’m a Canadian quarterback and I think with the reputation that Canadian quarterbacks have, I don’t think that will necessarily happen. I think if anything, from what I’ve heard, it’s the opposite,” Rourke said.
“In that sense, I would just like to be able to win the job as a quarterback, but I think that there’s something to be proud of in the fact that you’re Canadian and Canadians have not had a lot of success at the quarterback position, historically. I definitely don’t want to shy away from that at all, but when it comes down to it, I want to win the job because I’m the best player on the field for the team.”
By all accounts, Rourke has held up his end of that bargain in Kamloops, B.C. He’s improved daily, picking up the offence quickly and looking good in his reps with the first team as Reilly continues to be placed on a pitch count. He’s even gained a new reputation for being a strong-armed quarterback, something that was never attributed to him in college.
“I’m a bit surprised by that. I’ve never been someone who’s been told that they have a strong arm, so obviously something that I’m doing in the off-season this past few years was right,” Rourke grinned, crediting his work with Vancouver-based kinesiologist and QB guru Rob Williams.
“I’ve been working with him and I’ve seen some changes in the way the ball jumps off of my hand. I’m happy about that, it’s a good reputation to have.”
It’s clear that Rourke’s impressive career — and the accomplishments of other recent Canadian pivots like Michael O’Connor, Brandon Bridge and Andrew Buckley — have greatly reduced the stigma that once shrouded Canadian quarterbacking. Even if the internal bias still exists, Rourke is more than ready to overcome it.
“Trying to get a Division I scholarship, I definitely didn’t get special treatment,” Rourke recalled. “You’re investing a lot of money when you give someone a scholarship, especially at that level, and you’re taking more of a risk [on a Canadian] than taking a guy who grew up in their own backyard.”
Rourke had to leave home as a teenager to play his final year of high school in Alabama just to get noticed and, even after being named the state MVP at his level, needed a year of junior college tape to attract FBS offers. He takes a little more pride in his Canadian status after overcoming those hurdles, but understands why they exist.
“Especially in those scenarios, I think that’s just the way it is that you want your own guys to succeed. I don’t blame people in the States for wanting Americans to succeed, I understand that,” Rourke said. “It’s cool to see Canadians do well, especially at the quarterback position.”
Now back in the province of his birth, Rourke need not feel guilty if he benefits a little from that natural tribalism. He’s already a fan favourite without ever having played a CFL game, but that in itself won’t be enough to earn him the all-important number two job.
That position is far too integral to play passport politics with and that’s exactly how Rourke wants it to be.