Offensive focal point

Ohio quarterback Nathan Rourke throws during the 2019 Green & White scrimmage inside Peden Stadium in April. Rourke has more than 6,000 yards of offense and 77 touchdowns accounted for in two seasons as the Bobcats’ starting quarterback.

This story appears in the Sunday, June 9 newspaper on Page B1.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a nine-part series outlining the 2019 Ohio Football roster. The series will break down nine parts of the program in the coming weeks, with a look at who returns, what’s changed, and what’s to come at each position. The series starts today with a look at the Ohio quarterbacks.

After helping engineer the two best offensive seasons in program history, you might assume Ohio senior quarterback Nathan Rourke has little to prove, or take on, as the Bobcats’ signal-caller.

But that’s not the case. Rourke, a Canadian-born, dual-threat, play-making machine that is on track to account for more touchdowns than any player in Ohio Football history, wants to add to his portfolio in 2019.

“I think there’s a lot more I can bring,” Rourke said this spring. “I’m always trying to be more of a leader. I think I can do more there.

“And really the next challenge for me is be more of a coach on the field,” he continued. “Checking out of bad plays more often, checking into better looks against a certain defense. I think that’s natural the more comfortable you get being in the offense and being comfortable with the coaching staff.”

Make no mistake, the Bobcats are going all-in on Rourke in 2019. All of Ohio’s offensive principals — from head coach Frank Solich, to offensive coordinator Tim Albin, to quarterbacks coach Scott Isphording — talked this spring about giving Rourke more say in how the offense runs.

Rourke will have more leeway to change plays on his own, to call one of a set number of plays before the snap. He’s got the keys to the car, so to speak.

“He’s going to have a lot on his plate, and he’s earned that responsibility,” Isphording said.

Solich, the nation’s oldest FBS coach, will turn 75 in early September. But having a quarterback in place has him feeling as engaged as ever.

“It definitely helps when you have a guy at the quarterback position like we do,” Solich said. “The only thing I don’t want is for him to feel like he has to do it all himself.

“He’s the guy. If he just plays like the guy he is, he’ll have another great year.”

Rourke has had two great seasons already, and has been named a Second Team All-MAC pick quarterback in consecutive seasons. He’s the first QB at Ohio under Solich — a span of 14 years — to do that.

In two seasons of being the starter, Rourke has thrown for more than 4,600 yards and added 40 touchdown passes. He’s rushed for 1,772 yards and another 36 touchdowns. With 77 touchdowns accounted for — he has one career TD reception — Rourke is on pace to shatter the previous Ohio record of 81 set by former Solich-era QB Tyler Tettleton.

But Rourke’s impending final season also brings a new dynamic. With so many familiar faces gone from the offense — the Bobcats lost their top two RBs, two of the top 3 WRs and 3 starting offensive linemen — the focus early in the year will be squarely dialed in on the quarterback. The offense, simply put, will go as well as Rourke does.

“It’s my job to get everyone else involved,” Rourke said. “If (freshmen WRs) Jerome Buckner and Shane Hooks or (sophomore) Isiah Cox don’t get the touches they should, then that’s on me.”

And for the first time in three years, Ohio will not have a security blanket at the most important position on the field. Fourth-year junior quarterback Quinton Maxwell — a part-time starter over the previous three years — has transferred to Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania this offseason.

Ohio moved another quarterback, sophomore Drew Keszei, to wide receiver this spring. Rourke will be the only quarterback on the roster who attempted a pass in a game when the season begins.

“That’s the scary thing, we’re really young there behind Nate,” said Albin. “But we love what those guys have been about so far. We have to get them ready.”

Ohio is expected to have just four quarterbacks on the roster when fall camp begins. And the August-long battle to see who the backup will be could be one of the toughest calls heading into 2019.

Redshirt freshman Joe Mischler — from Cathredal Prep out of Erie, Pa. — is smaller, but brings the headiness and leadership qualities you’d expect from the son of a high school coach. At 5-foot-11, Mischler lacks the ideal size but has been adept at every aspect of operating out of the position since his arrival.

Mischler’s prime competition for the backup job this fall will come from freshman Kurtis Rourke — Nathan’s younger brother — who enrolled early and got a crash course in Bobcat Football this spring. Kurtis Rourke, at 6-foot-3, didn’t show the instinctual running of his brother this spring but is already established as perhaps the best pure passer on the roster.

Mischler was still slightly ahead of Kurtis Rourke on the depth chart when the spring ended. But it’s anyone guess right now whether that will still hold true by September.

Also at the position will be redshirt freshman Naylan Yates, a Vinton County HS grad, who missed virtually all of 2018 with a suspension. The walk-on returned for spring camp.

2019 Ohio Football

Quarterbacks

Starter — Nathan Rourke (Senior, 6-2, 208)

Rourke improved his completion percentage by nearly five full points in 2019 (55.1 percent to 59.9) and saw his passing efficiency rating climb from 132.9 to 156.3 in his second season. He’ll be the preseason pick as the top QB in the MAC, but will be tasked with guiding a young offensive side into a cohesive offensive unit.

Gone — Quinton Maxwell and Drew Keszei

Maxwell, who started the 2016 MAC Championship Game, has transferred out after his fourth season. He was a huge asset over the last two seasons as Ohio knew it had a more-than-capable backup available.

Keszei is still with the Bobcats, but transitioned from QB to WR this spring.

Backup — Joe Mischler (R-Freshman, 5-11, 188) or Kurtis Rourke (Freshman, 6-3, 200)

This won’t be decided until the fall. Rourke enrolled early and showed glimpses of superior arm talent this spring. Mischler shouldn’t be discounted however; he’s smart, tough and a better runner at this stage than Kurtis Rourke.

Depth — Naylan Yates (R-Freshman, 6-1, 205)

Email at jarkley@athensmessenger.com; follow on Twitter @JasonAmessenger

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