Around the CFL: Why Lions QB Nathan Rourke is the 'total package'

B.C. Lions quarterback Nathan Rourke runs for a touchdown during the second half of CFL football game against the Edmonton Elks in Vancouver, on Saturday, August 6, 2022. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

The B.C. Lions have been raving about the work ethic of first-year starting quarterback Nathan Rourke all season.

But what exactly does Rourke do to earn that praise? 

Let his old college quarterbacks coach at Ohio University tell you. 

“That first summer he was on the depth chart as the No. 2 (in 2017), it’s the middle of summer Friday night, a friend of mine came into Athens, (Ohio) for the weekend and I said ‘hey, I’ll take you and show you around the facilities,’” Scott Isphording, now the offensive co-ordinator and QB coach for the Ohio Bobcats, said over the phone this week.  

“As I’m done showing my buddy around, we’re leaving and Nathan has a bag of balls and is going onto the field without another player and is going to throw into one of the nets we kept on the field at 7:30, 8 o’clock on a Friday night. That’s just who he was and who he is. It wasn’t a show. There’s no way he knew I was there. In fact, I think he was disappointed I saw it.  

“He was a great young man to coach because I’ll tell you what, he held me to the fire. I had to know what I was doing because he definitely knew what he was doing.” 

The Cincinnati native had a front-row seat to watch the development of a guy who is easily the story of the year in the CFL. 

A rare Canadian quarterback to get a real shot at a No. 1 job, Rourke has exceeded all expectations. Born in Victoria and raised in Oakville, Ont., the 24-year-old cemented his status as the top candidate for the league’s Most Outstanding Player award last week when he completed 34 of 37 passes (for a CFL record 91.2-per-cent completion rate) for 477 yards and five touchdowns as the Lions improved to 6-1 with a 46-14 demolition of the Edmonton Elks. Rourke also rushed for a major, breaking Russ Jackson’s record for touchdowns in a game by a Canadian QB.

The last player to be named the CFL's MOP and top Canadian in the same season -- Calgary Stampeders running back Jon Cornish in 2013 -- won the Canadian athlete of the year award that December.

“I’ve been able to see a good chunk (of his games this season). … There’s certain mannerisms that are Nathan Rourke and it’s great to see on TV,” Isphording said.  

“Him playing as well as he is, it’s been a lot of fun for the whole family. Nate was around my kids a ton and was great to them and they all love watching him. … I cannot take any credit for what he has done and what he’s continuing to do because he’s about as self-motivated as anybody I’ve been around.” 

That was clear from the moment Isphording first met Rourke. 

The Bobcats had received word there was a promising QB at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas, where Rourke played in 2016 -- some guys named Aaron Rodgers and Josh Allen also started their post-secondary careers in relative obscurity at junior colleges. Like the Green Bay Packers star (Butte Community College in California before playing for NCAA California) and the man giving Buffalo Bills fans legitimate Super Bowl thoughts for the first time in decades (Reedley College in California before going to NCAA Wyoming), Rourke went off the beaten path to Fort Scott after finishing his high-school career with one year in Alabama. 

“I flew out to see him. Most of the time, pretty much all the time, when you go to meet a recruit, he shows up shakes your hand, maybe he’s glad to see you depending on the school, maybe not,” Isphording said. “Nate shows up with a notebook and a pen and is writing down everything I say. I went ‘you know, this is my kind of guy.’ 

“Fortunately, recruiting is amazing, he had one other offer. He came here for the spring, our quarterbacks were not live that spring, so we really didn’t really know what we had from the make-people-miss standpoint in the running game. The quarterback that started the year before and Nate split time the first two games and it became pretty obvious, pretty fast that Nathan was going to be the better of the two and Nathan never looked back.” 

With his arm and feet as weapons, Rourke guided Ohio to three NCAA Bowl wins in as many years before the Lions took him 15th overall in the 2020 CFL Draft. 

Isphording said Rourke had injuries that limited his off-season program his first two years at Ohio – preventing him from working on his arm strength. But now that he’s fully healthy, the coach sees significant improvement. 

“He’s getting the ball in some of the tight windows that are obviously going to be tighter the higher levels you go,” said Isphording, who now coaches Rourke’s younger brother, Kurtis – also a quarterback at Ohio. 

On Saturday, Nathan Rourke will face one of his tougher professional tests to date when he goes into Calgary to face the 5-2 Stampeders.  

Isphording knows Rourke will be prepared for the challenge – and he’ll do so while not forgetting those around him. 

“He is very serious. He is very driven. But not to the point of being a jerk,” Isphording said. “Some very driven people are not the nicest people in the world. If anything, Nathan is as nice a person as you’d ever want to meet and that’s a tribute to his mom (Robyn) and dad (Larry) and what they’ve done.  

“He’s a very driven guy. It took to his senior year for us to be able to sit down and talk about stuff other than football. Definitely was the first to get a picture with the kids after the game. I have a son (Gunnar) and a daughter (Erika) and he’d give them both high fives after the game.  

“You’ve got the total package up there with him and sometimes, it’s a little too good to be true with guys and superstars and all that. Certainly not the case with Nathan. You see what you get. He’s a great young man and has worked his butt off to get where he goes. I don’t know how you don’t love a guy like that.” 

What we liked in Week 9

• The incredible Winnipeg Blue Bombers. On a short week (they had just four days off between road games), Mike O'Shea's Blue Bombers improved to 9-0 with a 35-20 win over the Montreal Alouettes. 

• The rebound by the Toronto Argonauts. Coming off a debacle in all facets of the game in a loss to the Ottawa Redblacks, the Argos responded by beating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 34-20 to take control of the weak East Division. 

• The continuing strong play of Calgary Stampeders rookie defensive back Titus Wall, who returned an interception 46 yards for a touchdown in a 17-3 win over Ottawa. 

What we didn’t like in Week 9 

• The Redblacks’ poor performance in Ottawa after finally winning of their first of the season in Toronto. Ottawa is now a pathetic 2-16 at home the past three years. 

• Continuing discipline problems for the Alouettes, which was supposed to be one of the big reasons GM Danny Maciocia installed himself as head coach and fired Khari Jones earlier this year. There were seven penalties for 77 yards in the loss to Winnipeg. 

• The serious injury suffered by Ticats star receiver Bralon Addison in Toronto. He tweeted he has a torn Achilles this week, bad news for a banged-up Ticats team. 

Week 10 picks 

Montreal Alouettes at Winnipeg Blue Bombers (-9), Thursday, 8:30 p.m. ET / 5:30 p.m. PT 

Second half of a home-and-home series. Alouettes QB Trevor Harris will play after being limited with a back injury this week. PICK: Montreal 

Toronto Argonauts at Hamilton Tiger-Cats (-1), Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET / 4:30 p.m. PT 

Once again, the latter half of a home-and-home. The Ticats’ trend of late meltdowns continued last week in Toronto as they gave up an interception return and blocked punt for touchdowns. PICK: Toronto 

B.C. Lions (-2.5) at Calgary Stampeders, Saturday, 7 p.m. ET / 4 p.m. PT 

The game of the week as the top contenders for second place in the CFL West square off. All three of the teams’ combined losses are against Winnipeg this year. PICK: B.C. 

Saskatchewan Roughriders (-5.5) at Edmonton Elks, Saturday, 10 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PT 

Coming off the bye week, the Roughriders are in desperate need of a win after losing three in a row. PICK: Saskatchewan 

2022 record: 20-15 

(Odds from FanDuel as of Thursday morning) 

Power rankings 

1. Winnipeg Blue Bombers (9-0, last week: 1): Looking to become the seventh team in CFL history to start 10-0, matching the franchise record set in 1960. 

2. B.C. Lions (6-1, last week: 2): Rourke faces Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell in a marquee quarterbacking matchup on Saturday. 

3. Calgary Stampeders (5-2, last week: 3): Defence carried the Stamps to a win in Ottawa. They’ll need more from the offence against the Lions. 

4. Toronto Argonauts (4-3, last week: 6): Playing second of four games in five weeks against the Ticats on Friday.

5. Saskatchewan Roughriders (4-4, last week: 5): Returning from bye against the Elks gives the Roughriders a chance to get back on track. 

6. Hamilton Tiger-Cats (2-6, last week: 4): Huge dropoff after No. 5 in the power rankings -- but a sixth team will qualify for the playoffs. Somehow, the Ticats are currently second in the CFL East -- and would make the post-season if it started today. 

7. Ottawa Redblacks (1-7, last week: 7): On the bye after getting booed at home in a dreary loss to the Stampeders. 

8. Montreal Alouettes (2-6, last week: 9): Only move up one because of the performance of the team below them last week. 

9. Edmonton Elks (2-6, last week: 8): Edmonton has now been outscored 105-29 in two games against the Lions.

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