‘The sky is the limit’: Bryan Burnham believes Nathan Rourke can be a ‘superstar’ like Reilly, Mitchell and Collaros

Photo courtesy: B.C. Lions/Daryl Dyck, Canadian Press

There is no stronger relationship on a football team than that between a quarterback and his top receiver. The two must have chemistry and trust, an understanding of what the other is thinking before they even execute their next move.

Bryan Burnham and Michael Reilly had that type of connection — both on and off the field — but with his veteran gunslinger retiring last week few would have begrudged the four-time all-star for seeking a new bromance outside of B.C.

Instead, Burnham is back for another season, a ringing endorsement of second-year Canadian quarterback Nathan Rourke.

“With Mike on the way out, you had to evaluate the quarterback situation as a receiver. I want to play with a good quarterback and the way Rourke is — and I don’t want this to turn into just a praising of Rourke — but man, the way he approaches the day-to-day is just really impressive for a young guy,” Burnham told reporters virtually unprompted during his post-signing media conference on Friday.

“We saw him in training camp after practice and he’s on the field pulling the sled or getting some extra work in. You’re like, ‘Man, I wonder how long that’s gonna last.’ And it lasted all season, every single day.”

Selected in the second round, 15th overall during the 2020 CFL Draft, Rourke was named the Lions’ presumptive 2022 starter on Monday. He spent his rookie season learning from Reilly while dressing in all 14 regular season games, completing 63 percent of his passes for 754 yards with three touchdowns against five interceptions and carrying the ball 18 times for 111 yards (6.2 yards per carry) with five majors on the ground.

While those touchdown-to-interception numbers hardly jump off the page, there is more to the story than that. According to Burnham, he knew Rourke was the real deal during his very first game, a surprise Week 1 start against the Roughriders as Reilly battled an injured elbow.

“I remember the first game of the season in Saskatchewan, Rourke had just thrown a pick six and things weren’t going very well. You kind of assume a young quarterback is going to turtle and go in to a shell. That didn’t happen,” Burnham explained.

“I remember being in the huddle during a TV timeout and music was playing in the stadium and I look up at Rourke to kind of see where he was at. I like to look in people’s eyes to kind of get a feel for what they’re thinking and man, he just had that fire in his eyes. He was sitting there dancing and he just looked like he was ready to go. From that moment, I was like, yeah, I can play with this guy.”

Reilly eventually replaced Rourke at half-time in that game, but the rookie was forced to re-enter the contest late in the fourth and came up just short of completing a Lions’ comeback.

The Victoria-born, Oakville-raised quarterback would eventually start the Lions final game of the season, completing 23-of-34 passes (68 percent) for 359 yards and one touchdown versus two interceptions, while adding seven carries for 34 yards plus three majors on the ground in a 43-10 win over Edmonton.

A two-time Jon Cornish Trophy winner as the top Canadian player in the NCAA, Rourke had plenty of hype coming out of the University of Ohio to be the first great homegrown quarterback in the CFL since the retirement of Russ Jackson. Burnham believes it all whole-heartedly.

“What did Michael Jordan say a couple years ago? The ceiling’s the roof? The sky is the limit for Rourke, man. I mean, it really is. A lot of guys come in and they have talent, they’ve got a strong arm, but Rourke has that other factor. That willingness to come in and put in the work and to do it every single day is just something that really I took notice of. This guy wants it and he gets it,” the receiver raved.

“I think he really has the potential to be a superstar in this league, to be a Mike Reilly or a Bo Levi or a Zach Collaros. I really think that he’s on his way. I don’t want to pump him up too much, he still has to continue to put that work in every day. But so far he has and I’m excited to see where it takes him.”

The Lions have been clear about their intention to bring in a veteran backup, but the starting job is now Rourke’s to lose. While some may be concerned that developing a young starter will result in another losing season, Burnham has no such fears.

“If I didn’t think that this team was capable of winning, if I thought that this team was going to go through another five-win season, I wouldn’t have been interested in coming back,” he insisted.

The B.C. Lions, he believes, are ready to be a contender and it is Nathan Rourke who will take them there.

Abbott is a UBC student, youth coach and lifelong CFL fanatic. He specializes in coverage of the CFL draft and the league's global initiative.