Morris: Lions go young and Canadian at Quarterback
CFL.ca will be previewing the 2022 season, taking an in-depth look at each of the nine teams as they get set to hit the field.
If the BC Lions are playing football in November this year it means their gamble paid off.
A Lions team that missed the playoffs the last two years with Michael Reilly at quarterback, one of the best to ever play the position in CFL history, is rolling the dice this year with two young, inexperienced Canadian quarterbacks in Nathan Rourke and Michael O’Connor.
Rourke, the 23-year-old Victoria, BC native that the Lions selected 15th overall out of Ohio University in the 2020 CFL Draft, is expected to start after showing lots of potential in his rookie season last year.
O’Connor, the 26-year-old Ottawa, Ont. native that won a Vanier Cup with the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, was drafted by Toronto in 2019 and played last year with Calgary.
Between them, the two have played a total of 28 CFL games and have combined for four touchdown passes and five interceptions.
Rick Campbell, BC’s head coach and co-general manager, believes Rourke is a safe bet to help the Lions improve from their 5-9 record in the shortened 2021 season.
“I don’t look at it as a roll of the dice,” Campbell said. “I would agree he’s unproven (but) just because he hasn’t done it yet. All signs point to he’s going to do a really good job.
“I’m confident the proof will be in the pudding.”
Rourke experienced a baptism of fire in his CFL debut last season. With Reilly nursing a sore elbow, Rourke was the surprise starter for the Lions’ opening game against the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Reilly started the second half but Rourke ended the night completing 10 of 18 passes for 194 yards, two touchdowns and a pair of interceptions in a 33-29 loss.
Rourke had limited playing time for the rest of the campaign but started the final game of the season against the Edmonton Elks. He look poised and efficient, completing 23 of 34 passes for 359 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in BC’s 43-10 win. He also ran for three touchdowns and was named a CFL Top Performer of the Week.
Campbell likes the confidence Rourke has in himself, combined with his willingness to learn.
“Just his demeanor, his work ethic, the way other players respond to him,” he said. “When I talk to other guys about Nathan being our quarterback, there’s zero doubt in their minds.
“He got an extraordinary amount of practice time and work with the receivers last year so I think that accelerates his learning curve.”
Rourke will have a veteran group of receivers to work with, including the reliable Bryan Burnham, the exciting Lucky Whitehead, Canadian Jevon Cottoy and Dominique Rhymes, who had 28 catches for 411 yards in eight games before suffering a season-ending ankle injury last year.
Neil McEvoy, BC’s director of football operations and co-general manager, said too many people see Rourke’s nationality and not his capability.
“If you take away his nationality, you’d be saying the BC Lions have found a great quarterback, a young kid who does everything you want,” said McEvoy. “Because he’s Canadian, we’re questioning everything.
“He’s done everything that we’ve asked him to do and has done everything at a high level.”
Often when a team decides to start a young quarterback there’s a veteran on the roster to step in if needed. In the Lions case, they have no safety net.
O’Connor has played 15 games in two seasons. He dressed for six games last year with Calgary and didn’t throw a pass.
The other quarterback on the roster is Kevin Thomson, who BC signed last October after attending a rookie mini-camp with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. Thomson dressed for one game last year in place of Rourke.
“They’re not experienced but sometimes great stuff comes when you have some young, hungry guys that are looking to prove themselves,” said Campbell.
“I can’t disagree that they’re not a bunch of hall of fame guys that have been around forever. There’s a long list of young guys that come into this league that you have a good feeling about.”
The Lions were a young team last year. Due to COVID-19 protocols, there were no exhibition games, which meant for some players their first taste of the CFL came on opening night.
McEvoy said having that year under their belts will make a difference.
“We’re still a young football team,” he said. “Now we’re younger with a little bit more experience. All those guys that came in last year that had never seen a Canadian Football League game are now going into their second year.”
The Lions were also busy in free agency.
They improved a defence that was in the bottom third of the league in many categories by signing defensive backs Loucheiz Purifoy and Delvin Breaux, plus defensive linemen David Menard, Mathieu Betts and Steven Richardson.
BC hopes to bring consistency to its kicking game by adding veteran placekicker Sean Whyte.
“I think we’ve improved all across the board,” said McEvoy. “We brought in parts that we needed and we’re confident going into training camp that we will be able to continue and start winning football games.”