B.C. Lions quarterback Nathan Rourke knows that taking over the starter spot isn’t going to be easy.
Not only is the 24-year-old Ohio product under the spotlight as a rare Canadian QB, he’s also stepping into a role vacated by the man who led the league in passing last season.
Michael Reilly retired in January after 11 CFL seasons, including a 2021 campaign where he tallied 3,283 passing yards. His departure means Rourke will take over the No. 1 position when B.C. kicks off its 2022 campaign at home against the Edmonton Elks on June 11.
“They’re big shoes to fill,” Rourke said at Lions’ training camp in Kamloops, B.C., last month.
“And this is an offence that requires a good amount of direction from the quarterback and leadership in terms of just being able to be cool back there and make plays and get the ball to our stars. So it’s been fun so far and there’s a long way to go still.”
Rourke, who is from Victoria, made two starts and passed for a total of 754 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie campaign last season.
Despite Reilly’s big numbers and Rourke’s breakout, the Lions finished the COVID-condensed campaign with a 5-9 record and failed to make the playoffs for a second year in a row.
With some new additions and familiar faces, head coach/co-general manager Rick Campbell is confident heading into a new year.
“Everybody says they’re optimistic at the beginning of the year because no one’s lost yet but there’s a lot of reasons for us,” he said. “I think we improved, improved ourselves through the draft and free agency and I think the continuity is going to help us out.
“We’re all a year older and the coaches know the players and the players know the coaches and I’m hoping that pays off for us.”
Campbell bolstered his roster with a number of moves in free agency. He inked all-star defensive back Delvin Breaux Sr., and defensive lineman Steven Richardson, who won a Grey Cup with the Blue Bombers last season. He also brought back several former Lions, including defensive lineman David Menard (Alouettes), defensive back Loucheiz Purifoy (Roughriders), linebacker Micah Awe (Redblacks) and kicker Sean Whyte (Elks).
The new additions seemed to be fitting in easily early in training camp, particularly on defence.
Weathering a strike before hitting the field brought the group together, said veteran defensive back T.J. Lee.
“We’ve grown to be pretty close,” said Lee, who’s heading into his eighth season with the Lions. “We had the strike days to kind of unite personally, and talk about personal issues and talk about family talk about what they’re doing in the off-season. We have a lot of veteran presence and leadership.”
A healthy receiving corps will also be a boon for B.C.
The team led the CFL in passing yards (4,037) last season and had two of the top five receivers in the league, including Lucky Whitehead, who was fourth with 932 yards despite missing two games with two broken fingers.
With his hand healed, Whitehead returned to Vancouver ahead of training camp to get some work in with Rourke. The extra reps helped the duo develop their connection, the receiver said.
“He knows he’s got a guy in myself that he can count on,” he said.
Wide receiver Bryan Burnham also comes back in form after suffering a broken hand last season. Despite the injury, he played all 14 games, amassing 965 yards — the second most in the league — and five touchdowns.
Heading into his eighth season with the Lions, Burnham is looking to grow from where the team left off last year.
“There’s a lot of continuity and a lot of chemistry that we’re able to build off of whereas last year we were trying to build that chemistry and now we can go into camp with that chemistry and just continue to get better,” he said.
Building chemistry with Rourke has been a smooth process, he added, in part because of how hard the young quarterback works.
“He’s right there. He’s on his way to being a great quarterback. And he puts in the work,” Burnham said while watching Rourke get some solo work in after a long double practice early in training camp.
Rourke says he’s constantly putting in extra work to hone his game. That’s how it goes in professional sports, he said, especially when you’re the starter.
“There’s always someone looking to replace you and the guys that we have in the quarterback room are talented guys. And so you’ve got to keep stepping it up,” Rourke said.
“I think the way I look at it is that I owe the rest of the 11 guys in the huddle to give them my best and be prepared. And if I’m not, then I’m selling them short.”
JUST THE FACTS
GENERAL MANAGERS: Neil McEvoy and Rick Campbell (second season as co-GMs)
HEAD COACH: Rick Campbell (second season)
2021: Finished 5-9-0, fourth in the West Division
ADDITIONS: QBs Michael O’Connor (Calgary) and Antonio Pipkin (Toronto), LB Micah Awe (Ottawa Redblacks), DBs DB Delvin Breaux Sr. (return from retirement) and Loucheiz Purifoy (Saskatchewan), K Sean Whyte (Edmonton), DL Steven Richardson (Winnipeg).
DEPARTURES: QB Michael Reilly (retired), WR Lemar Durant (Hamilton), LB Adam Konar (Edmonton).
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Rourke, Breaux, LB Jordan Williams.
—Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press