VANCOUVER–B.C. Lions quarterback Nathan Rourke knows that taking over the starter spot isn’t going to be easy, but he will get his shot Saturday when the Lions host the Edmonton Elks to open their 2022 season.
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 offense 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.”
While the Lions are relying on continuity for improvement, the Elks are looking to start anew.
Chris Jones didn’t mince words when asked about the state of the Edmonton Elks as they attempt to recover from one of the worst seasons in franchise history – and a pre-season that hasn’t answered a lot of lingering questions about this team.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Jones said last Friday after the Elks were rocked 37-7 by a Calgary Stampeders team that rested many regulars.
“We’re back to day one, square one. We’re going to go back to day one, and way back when in the playbook. My god, we’re going to be a fundamentally sound football team. Right now, it doesn’t look like we are.”
Jones inherits a team that went 3-11 last year, and didn’t win a single game at home – the first time that’s happened in Elks history. Jones, the team’s general manager, head coach and defensive co-ordinator, was Edmonton’s biggest off-season acquisition, returning to the city where he won a Grey Cup in 2015.
But some of the questions that dogged this team in 2021 still haven’t been answered in 2022 – most notably the team’s first-choice quarterback. Nick Arbuckle will get the first crack at the job, starting under center in the Elks’ season opener Saturday at the B.C. Lions.
The team acquired Arbuckle from the Argos late in the `21 campaign, but then-head coach Jaime Elizondo opted not to play him, going with Taylor Cornelius, instead. The team’s brain trust felt that throwing Arbuckle into a new offensive system was too much to ask, so he held a clipboard while the team sputtered.
Arbuckle played in the team’s pre-season opener, a 30-20 win over Winnipeg on May 27 before injury curtailed his pre-season preparation.
Cornelius didn’t light it up in Arbuckle’s absence; he threw for just 42 yards on 12 attempted passes in the loss to Calgary.
When asked if Arbuckle and Cornelius will be battling for playing time well into the season, Jones’s answer came right out of the “Game of Thrones” file.
“I think so. Iron sharpens iron. That’s been my motto at pretty well every position.
“You always play the best player, and when you don’t have a clear-cut No. 1, competition breeds some really good football. The more guys you can bring in and compete for a job, then the better you’re going to be.”
It might not be just a two-man competition, as Jones kept four quarterbacks on the roster after final cuts were made. The wild card of the group is Tre Ford, the University of Waterloo product who won the Hec Creighton Award in ’21 as the most outstanding player in Canadian university football. The Elks used a first-round draft pick to get Ford.
“I know I am the rookie coming into the CFL. There is definitely a lot for me to learn,” said Ford. “I just feel with more development and timing with my receivers and everything, I can actually get through and make those reads. I feel like I am going to progress and get better while I am here.”
University of Texas-El Paso product Kai Locksley was also given some fourth-quarter looks in the pre-season, and actually outproduced Ford and Cornelius against Calgary. Locksley can also play wide receiver; he spent time in Miami Dolphins camp in `21 as a pass-catcher.
Locksley was listed as Arbuckle’s backup for the season opener on the Elks’ depth chart, with Cornelius out with an injury. Ford was moved into the wide-receiver rotation.
Jones makes no secret of his recipe to turn things around. He wants to Elks to be a strong team, and weight training sessions after practice are a big part of preparations.
He wants the team to be fundamentally strong, and the offense is built on the back of a solid running game – and handing the ball off is a big part of that whole “square one” of the playbook mentality.