EDMONTON — 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. As of Friday Jones had not confirmed his starting quarterback for Elks' season opener Saturday on the road against the B.C. Lions, though Nick Arbuckle ran the first-team offence during Edmonton's practice on Thursday.
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.
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 offence 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.
That’s why the return of James Wilder Jr., is key. He signed a one-year extension, and hopes are he will build on a good 2021 campaign, where he rushed for 770 yards and caught balls for 226 more. But Wilder got to training camp late because of visa issues, and didn’t get a lot of game touches in pre-season.
JUST THE FACTS
HEAD COACH/GM: Chris Jones (first year of second stint with Elks).
2021 RECORD: 3-11, fifth in West Division
KEY ADDITIONS: WR Kenny Lawler (Winnipeg), DB Ed Gainey (Saskatchewan), WR Emmanuel Arceneaux (IFL, Frisco Fighters), WR Caleb Holley (B.C.), LB Deon Lacey (Saskatchewan).
KEY DEPARTURES: WR Greg Ellingson (Winnipeg).
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Arbuckle, Cornelius, Lawler, Gainey.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2022.
Steven Sandor, The Canadian Press