This is the first in a series of previews, which will cover nine Ohio position groups ahead of the 2018 season. The Bobcats start the season on Sept. 1 at Peden Stadium against Howard. For more, check The Post in the coming weeks.
Aug. 20: Quarterbacks | Aug. 21: Running backs | Aug. 22: Receivers | Aug. 23: Tight ends | Aug. 24: Offensive line | Aug. 25: Defensive line | Aug. 26: Linebackers | Aug. 27: Defensive backs | Aug. 28: Specialists
Today’s position: Quarterbacks
Projected starter: Nathan Rourke (junior)
Key backups: Quinton Maxwell (redshirt junior), Drew Keszei (redshirt freshman), Joe Mischler (freshman).
Newcomers: Mischler and Naylan Yates.
Breakdown: At this time a year ago, Nathan Rourke was unknown. A talented prospect yet to show off his skill set because of he’d just transferred in the previous spring from junior college, the best way for Rourke to answer any questions surrounding him was to silently work to improve, letting his play do the talking.
His play had a lot to say.
"Not too much is different," Rourke said in early August. "I'm still trying to prove that I can come back from surgery better. All that outside stuff doesn't matter, I'm just one of 11. I'm just really excited about this group.
Rourke led the Bobcats to a 9-4 record in 2017, throwing for 2,203 yards and 17 touchdowns in the process, as he firmly took control of the starting job for — barring injury — the rest of his time in Athens.
Rourke did enough during his sophomore season to warrant some national buzz heading into 2018. The 2017 All-Mid-American Conference second-team quarterback honorable selection has found his name on watch lists for Maxwell, O’Brien and Manning awards. And because of his play, he’s being mentioned in the same sentence as the best Ohio quarterback under coach Frank Solich: Tyler Tettleton.
Rourke’s first year as Ohio’s starting quarterback stacks up well against his predecessor. Here is a table showing the standard statistics of Rourke and Tettleton in their first full season as a starter:
The numbers across the board are nearly even. But when you factor in what Rourke did with his legs, it shows his true dual-threat ability. It’s something the program hasn’t seen before under Solich.
Rourke rushed for 907 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. By comparison, Tettleton rushed for 666 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first full season. Unlike with past Bobcat quarterbacks, this is a legitimate weapon for Rourke and this Ohio offense.
In just one season, Rourke put himself at eighth all-time in rushing touchdowns.
As far as his overall game, there were plenty of moments last season in which Rourke looked like a star in the making. If there was ever a pregame to the party, it came in the blowout loss to Purdue in Week 2. He entered the game with 4:21 left in the first quarter and finished the game with a touchdown and was 16 of 23. He also showed off why he would become one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country:
He started against Kansas a week later and rushed for a touchdown and threw for two. Rourke started every game the rest of the season. Over a nine-day, two-game stretch, he had a total of eight touchdowns and 602 yards against arch-rival Miami and Toledo.
But as one would expect with a first-year starting quarterback, there were also times when Rourke looked pedestrian. In the season-defining game at Akron, he threw two interceptions and was just 9 of 22. At times Rourke didn’t start games fast, which led to tough situations in the second half.
For all the praise he’s received, there are improvements to be made. He's still recovering from off-season surgery on his arm. Rourke’s ability to buy time, extend plays and pick up additional yards are what make him such an intriguing talent, but at times it hindered his passing ability. Instead of progressing through his reads to find open receivers, there were moments when Rourke opted too quickly to create with his legs.
It’s all part of the maturation process for Rourke. This season, he’ll aim to build upon the highs, while keeping the lows at a minimum. Early into his career as a starter, the highs have outweighed those lows.
"I don't think anybody in the league that's got two quarterbacks like we got,” offensive coordinator Tim Albin said at Ohio media day in early August. “We’ve got 20 or 22 starts at quarterback between Nathan and Quinton. Nathan is our starter.”
Position battle to watch: As interesting as quarterback controversies are, there just isn’t one in Athens this season. The closest thing to a completion at the position lies at the third-string postion.
Keszei and Mischler have been exchanging many reps there, with Keszei having a better grasp at playbook and Mischler with the stronger arm.
Maxwell will continue to be the backup, and there may not be a better one in the conference. When he was a starter he struggled to lead the team down the field, not stepping up into the pocket when the pressure came.
But, when he was called off the bench two years ago when Greg Windham was injured, he succeed. If he needs to step in this year, maybe he’ll find more success with less pressure on him.
Best-case scenario: Another year of chemistry with his wide receivers, along with expected natural development, propels Rourke to true national stardom. As a runner he has a better idea of when to go down, but is still effective running in the open field. He has a conference player of the year season and leads the Bobcats to breaking the 50 year championship drought.
Worst-case scenario: Rourke is injured running the ball and misses a large portion of the season. Maxwell is thrust into the position and reverts back to his old self, making Ohio think of using Keszei or Mischler in the midst of back-to-back mid-week road games.