Had you told Edmonton Elks fans early in the summer that their team was going to be in the playoff hunt into the final weeks of the season, many wouldn’t have believed you. But a second half resurgence in Alberta’s capital shifted this team’s narrative significantly.
On a bye in Week 21, the Elks are officially done their 2023 campaign and there are plenty of things to be excited about looking ahead to next year.
There’s no question the decision to give Tre Ford the ball as starting quarterback in Week 10 was the biggest catalyst to Edmonton’s turnaround. The 25-year-old Waterloo product led the Elks to all four of their wins this season and finished 4-6 as a starter. And Ford gave us plenty of highlight reel moments along the way.
Ford wrapped up the season with 2,069 passing yards, 12 touchdowns, six interceptions, and a 67.4 per cent completion percentage. He added 622 more yards and three touchdowns on the ground, which is where we saw many of his “oh wow” moments down the stretch.
When he opted to keep the ball and run, Ford averaged 9.1 yards per carry and also showed a strong ability to throw the ball while in motion. There’s no questioning Ford’s dynamic and explosive qualities and it’s understandable why those helped give Edmonton a seemingly immediate spark. For the first time in his young career, Ford will enter a professional season with a starting job to lose.
“Tre’s a good player,” said head coach and general manager Chris Jones at Elks’ locker clean out day this week. “But he’s going to have to come back and compete for a job just like everybody else. He’ll come in as our No. 1, but Taylor Cornelius is a good player also.
“I feel like we don’t just have two good quarterbacks, I feel like we have a third. I think (Jarret) Doege is a good little quarterback. Everything’s a competition…and it’ll be at square one when we come back.”
The chance to start training camp on top of the depth chart is one Ford has earned. But he admitted in his end of season media availability he has things to work on. Whether it’s decision making or chemistry with his receivers, Ford has areas of development to focus on during the off-season.
But having an exciting, young, Canadian quarterback in the fold going into a new season is one of the biggest reasons for optimism in 2024.
The Elks have a good number of legit core players under contract next season. That list starts with receiver Eugene Lewis who finished his first season in Edmonton with 844 yards and three touchdowns in 12 appearances.
In fact, had injuries not limited his availability, Lewis was on pace to finish right near the top of the league receiving table. That’s exactly what the Elks targeted when they signed him to a massive two-year contract in February. Encouragingly, Lewis saw a total of 20 targets in Edmonton’s final two games of the season, which bodes well for his and Ford’s connection entering next year.
Returning along with Lewis is star tailback Kevin Brown, who finished his first full CFL season with 1,141 rushing yards and four touchdowns. He added another touchdown and 222 additional yards in the passing game. After showing promise in a seven-game debut in 2022, Brown emphatically arrived this season.
The returnee news on the other side of the ball is just as promising.
On the subject of arrivals, linebacker Nyles Morgan has done just that. Much like Brown, Morgan made the most of his first full CFL season. He’ll likely finish second in the league with 107 defensive tackles and would have challenged for the league lead had he not missed three games due to injury. Morgan added four sacks and one interception as part of his breakout campaign.
And, after showing a ton of commitment by foregoing free agency and signing back in Edmonton for two more years in January, veteran defensive end Jake Ceresna looks poised for another monster season. Ceresna finished 2023 with a career high 12 sacks, which tied him for second overall behind league-leader Mathieu Betts.
A few questions
Not every key member of the Elks is guaranteed to return. Edmonton has a few important pieces to attempt to re-sign this winter, starting with defensive end A.C. Leonard.
In his first season in Green and Gold, Leonard joined Ceresna to form one of the CFL’s most dangerous tandems off the edge. Both players finished with 12 sacks. Getting Leonard to sign back with the Elks would be a big win as he comes off of a career season.
I’m also curious to see what Edmonton decides on a couple veteran defensive backs. Louchiez Purifoy had a great first season with the Elks. Playing at both safety and SAM linebacker throughout the year, Purifoy finished with 49 defensive tackles, three interceptions and two defensive touchdowns. Turning 31 in December, it feels like Purifoy has lots left in the tank.
There’s also plenty of wisdom in bringing back Ed Gainey for a third year in Edmonton. While injury limited him to just 12 games this season, Gainey still finished with 32 defensive tackles, one sack, one interception and one forced fumble. Having Gainey’s stability at the boundary halfback position going into 2024 would be a nice security blanket.