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Ticats head coach Milanovich says Rourke's NFL season was a successful one

Nathan Rourke New England Patriots Nathan Rourke - The Canadian Press

He split his first NFL season between two teams and didn't play a down but Scott Milanovich still considers Canadian Nathan Rourke's stint south of the border a success.

Rourke, 25, dressed with both Jacksonville and New England this year after being named the CFL's outstanding Canadian in 2022 while with the B.C. Lions. The 25-year-old Victoria native initially signed with the Jaguars and after starting the year on the practice roster twice gained promotion to the active roster before being claimed off waivers by the Patriots.

Rourke finished up as New England's backup but like in Jacksonville didn't see any playing time. However Milanovich, who's now the Hamilton Tiger-Cats head coach but is a former NFL quarterback and assistant coach, feels Rourke has at least put himself in a good position to get on the field.

"The hardest thing is to just get your foot in the door and he did that," Milanovich told reporters during a teleconference Monday at the CFL's winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn. "What he has to do is stick around long enough until he catches his break and then he's got to run with it.

"I look at it thinking it was an extremely successful season for him because he's got his foot in the door. Obviously someone else wanted him, Bill Belichick (Patriots head coach) wanted him so I think that's a positive."

The six-foot-one, 210-pound Rourke enjoyed a stellar college career at Ohio, twice claiming the Jon Cornish Trophy (2017-19) as the top Canadian in NCAA football. After being bypassed in the '21 NFL draft, Rourke signed with B.C., which selected him in the second round (15th overall) of the 2020 CFL draft.

After serving as veteran Michael Reilly's backup his first CFL season, Rourke took the league by storm in 2022. Despite suffering a Lisfranc sprain in his right foot that required surgery, Rourke earned top Canadian honours after completing 255-of-324 passes (league-high 78.7 per cent) for 3,349 yards with 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while rushing for 304 yards and seven TDs.

Rourke guided B.C. past Calgary 30-16 in the division semifinal, completing 22-of-30 passes for 321 yard and two TDs. The Lions' season ended with a 28-20 loss to Winnipeg in the West final as Rourke finished 20-of-37 passing for 300 yards with a TD and two interceptions while rushing twice for 20 yards.

Despite enjoying a stellar training camp with Jacksonville, Rourke was relegated to No. 3 on the depth chart behind incumbent Trevor Lawrence and veteran backup C.J. Beathard.

New England claimed Rourke off waivers Dec. 18 and he served as Bailey Zappe's backup Sunday in the club's season-ending 17-3 home loss to the New York Jets. Although Zappe finished 12-of-30 passing for 88 yards with two interceptions, Rourke remained on the sidelines.

But having had less than a month within the Patriots' offence, Milanovich again felt that wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

"They (NFL quarterbacks) do so much more down there," he said. "In the CFL we ask the centre to do most of that (assigning protections) but in the NFL the quarterback is doing a lot of protection stuff, he's making the points in the run game.

"There's really a lot on the plate of a young quarterback and I think it was great for him to sit there and learn."

Milanovich, 50, spent four seasons as quarterback with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1996-99) following his college career at Maryland. He came to the CFL's Calgary Stampeders in 2003 while also serving as quarterback coach.

After coaching three seasons in NFL Europe (with Rhein Fire and Cologne Centurions), Milanovich returned to Canada in 2007 as the Montreal Alouettes quarterback coach. He added offensive coordinator duties and was part of two Grey Cup-winning teams (2009-'10) in La Belle Province.

He added another CFL title — and the league's coach of the year honour — in 2010, his first season as the Toronto Argonauts head coach. Milanovich also served as quarterback coach with both Jacksonville (2017-19) and the Indianapolis Colts (2021-22) as well as Edmonton's head coach (2020).

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 8, 2024.