Opponents advised Nathan Rourke that CFL is ‘a harder place to play quarterback’ than NFL

Photo courtesy: Paul Yates/B.C. Lions

Canadian quarterback Nathan Rourke is about to jump up a level of competition after signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but he has it on good authority that adjusting to the NFL game may not be as difficult as many assume.

“It’s funny, I’ve talked to some CFL quarterbacks since the news broke and, obviously, a lot of them have been in the NFL and spent time down there and a lot of them seem to think that the CFL is a harder place to play quarterback,” Rourke said during an appearance on Tim and Friends this week. “It’ll be interesting to kind of go back there after having a taste of what professional football is.”

Rourke has flipped between the three and four-down versions of football before, moving from Ontario to Alabama to complete his high school career. He posted big numbers playing the American game at Fort Scott Community College and Ohio University before returning to Canada with the B.C. Lions.

The 24-year-old posted a record-setting pace during his first season as a starter in 2022, completing 78.7 percent of his pass attempts for 3,349 yards with 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 10 games. He also ran the football 39 times for 304 yards and seven scores, becoming the first quarterback to win the league’s Most Outstanding Canadian award since 1980.

Rourke received advice from former Calgary Stampeders’ QB Bo Levi Mitchell about his attempts to break into the NFL, as well as talking to CFL Hall of Famer and current Jaguars coach Henry Burris about the transition. He believes that his experience in the CFL has made him a superior quarterback, though there is much more to learn.

“I definitely feel like I’m a better passer and I feel like I’m seeing the field better than I did when I was in college,” he said. “On top of that, I’m gonna go to one of the best quarterback minds and developers in [Jaguars’ head coach] Doug Pederson. I think all those things are really exciting stuff and I’m looking forward to getting started.”

Though most CFL signal-callers believe that calling shots north of the border is the taller task, NFL clubs seem to disagree. While it was well-documented that Rourke was not going to be given a starting job despite his gaudy numbers, most franchises weren’t even comfortable with the thought of a kid from Canada as their backup.

While some have questioned Rourke’s decision to sign in Jacksonville given the presence of recent first-overall pick Trevor Lawrence, he was offered reassurance from the organization that he could be their number two — a critical piece in his decision.

“There weren’t many teams that were offering a chance to compete to do so,” the quarterback acknowledged. “Obviously, it’s not gonna be my job right off the bat, I’m going to have to compete to be that, but just to have the opportunity I think is a big deal and then we’ll go from there. I think that’s the best route to be able to be a starting quarterback in the NFL is to be number two and be a play away if something happens.”

Coming off a Lisfranc sprain that cost him the second half of the 2022 season, Rourke is well aware that unexpected injuries can open the door for others. More than 60 different quarterbacks started NFL games this year for exactly that reason and it doesn’t take much to make an impression.

“You look at this week, I mean I’m sure he’ll be ready to go against Kansas City on Saturday but Trevor was on the injury report and was limited in practice this week,” he pointed out. “Which means that if I was there, I’d be getting some reps and practice with some really good players there on offence.”

A situation like that would mirror Rourke’s path to success in the CFL, where he convinced the Lions to make him their starter after taking all the practice reps in 2021 for a banged-up Michael Reilly. While the Jaguars won’t be moving on from Lawrence any time soon, a similar situation could help Rourke earn an opportunity elsewhere.

Though he departs to chase that dream, the young pivot remains grateful for the opportunity he was given to establish himself in the CFL.

“I think it’s pretty special to be able to be a Canadian quarterback in the CFL and to have some type of success,” Rourke said. “I think at some times during the season, it was a bit overwhelming because I didn’t want the attention that I was getting but at the end of the day, I think that that was what made it special. Because as a team, we persevered through that and we rode everyone’s expectations and despite the injury, I was able to come back and win a playoff game.”

“I’m very appreciative to the Lions for allowing me to grow and develop as a pro and figure it out a little bit, get my feet wet in the pro game, but also to the fans for showing up and for cheering for me and the rest of the team and for making it as special as it was.”