‘He’s the top quarterback in the league right now’: Riders respect B.C. Lions Canadian QB Nathan Rourke

Photo courtesy: Tiffany Luke/B.C. Lions

Canadian quarterback Nathan Rourke has the full attention of the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

His B.C. Lions are scheduled to play the Green and White three times in the next five weeks. Rourke leads the CFL with 321 passing yards per game, 14 passing touchdowns and owns the highest QB rating among the league’s starters at 123.

“I think he’s the top quarterback in the league right now, regardless of nationality. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find another guy that would win MOP if the season ended today,” head coach Craig Dickenson said.

“He’s taken the league by storm, but I saw it last year with the play he got. He learned from one of the best, Mike Reilly. It’s always fun to go against one of the top guys in the league and compete man-versus-man,” Cody Fajardo said.

Rourke’s first CFL start came unexpectedly against the Riders in Week 1 last season while Michael Reilly was dealing with an elbow injury. He completed 10-of-18 passes for 194 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in two quarters and two series of action. A.C. Leonard intercepted Rourke with less than 30 seconds left to clinch a 33-29 win.

The Victoria, B.C. native was selected by the Lions in the second round, 15th overall during the 2020 CFL Draft. Saskatchewan’s coaching staff and scouts studied the six-foot-two, 209-pound quarterback in preparation for the pick-fest.

“He’s a good one. We really liked him coming out, I think he’s even better than we expected, but I think everybody knew he was a special player — regardless of nationality,” Dickenson said.

“Everybody could see those are the type of guys that have success in our league — smart, tough, he can throw the ball better than you think and he can certainly run with it. He’s an outstanding football player — they got themselves a good one over there and I think they know it.”

During his senior season at Ohio University, Rourke threw for 2,676 yards, 20 touchdowns against five interceptions with a 61.4 completion percentage. He rushed for 780 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 5.4 yards-per-carry.

The Bobcats went 6-6 and earned a spot in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, a game they would go on to win with Rourke being named MVP. The physical activity and sport coaching major earned 2019 All-Mid-American Conference first-team honours.

“The first time I saw Nathan Rourke was a bowl game two years ago. [Ohio] played the University of Nevada and he kicked our butts. I was like: ‘Who is this quarterback?’ I knew a lot about him, it’s going to be exciting to go against him, he’s a great competitor,” Fajardo said.

The 24-year-old started the 2022 season red hot by throwing for 718 yards and seven touchdowns against zero interceptions while breaking Russ Jackson’s single-game record for passing yards by a Canadian quarterback. In his last three games, Rourke has connected for seven touchdowns but been intercepted six times.

“Anytime you’re a younger quarterback, I went through this, the more tape you get out there the more tendencies you have. Some things you might not even think about and I think defensive coordinators are incredibly intelligent and they spot those things,” Fajardo said.

“There’s a lot of tells that you might be giving that you don’t even know you’re giving. The more tape it makes it more difficult on quarterbacks the more you play. That’s why it’s so remarkable what guys like Bo Levi [Mitchell] does and Zach Collaros because there is a lot of tape on those guys and they still go out and perform at a high level.”

Fajardo entered the current campaign as the favourite to win the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player award and he’ll face the upstart Rourke who has surpassed him in the odds set by betting linemakers.