June 16th, 2024

Elks optimistic of brighter 2024 after several seasons of futility

By Steven Sandor, The Canadian Press on June 3, 2024.

EDMONTON – The Edmonton Elks won all of four games in the 2023 season. The Green and Gold has just 11 wins over the previous three CFL campaigns. The team hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2019.

Yet, as training camp wrapped up, two words were consistently on the lips of general manager and head coach Chris Jones and his players.

“Grey Cup.”

How could a team that’s been so far out of the playoff races over the past half-decade see itself as a contender for the league crown in 2024?

There’s a different feel in training camp, and a mood of optimism that hasn’t been evident in years.

“We want to win the Grey Cup,” said Jones. “I mean, that’s why you play the games. You’ve got to be a loser if that’s not your goal going in.”

Jones, who is entering his third season of his second stint as the Elks coach, said he doesn’t have a target when it comes to a number of wins. In 2012, he was the defensive co-ordinator for a Toronto Argonauts squad that went 9-9, but won it all.

In his first stint as Edmonton’s head coach, he led the team to the 2015 Grey Cup after a 14-4 season. He knows that all a team needs to do is be one of the six that make the playoffs – and then get hot.

“We want to play well enough to get into the playoffs, play good solid football,” said Jones. “We want to play good football here in front of our fans. And we want to win enough games to win the whole thing.”

A lot will have to go right for the Elks in order for them to reach that lofty goal. And, for the last half-decade, a lot has gone wrong for this team.

In a city where pro football was once a close No. 2 to Oilers hockey, crowds have dwindled. The search is on for a new team president, and the Elks’ board is looking at the feasibility of selling a community-owned club to a private interest.

On the field, the Elks have placed their faith in a new quarterback, free agent signing McLeod Bethel-Thompson. He played in the USFL in 2023, but led the Argos to the Grey Cup in 2022, and tossed for 4,731 yards in the process.

His signing relegates Canadian Tre Ford, who took over the starting job halfway through the 2023 season, to the No. 2 role.

The Elks will hope standout receiver Geno Lewis will have a healthier 2024; he caught 48 passes for 844 yards last season, but missed six games due to injury.

The third big cog of the offence is running back Kevin Brown, who finished second in the league with 1,141 yards on the ground.

“I am feeling really good going into the season,” said Brown. “Especially with the receiving corps we got, and Mac back there, I feel excited, actually. For the team, we’re coming in with a new mindset. The atmosphere feels different from last season. I feel like last season, it felt like everybody was on edge. Now, this season, it’s more relaxed. It’s calm and collected.

“I feel like this is the season where everyone feels like we’re going to have a run for the Grey Cup. If any team were to do it, it’s us.”

The biggest question mark around the team is the rebuilt defensive line. Last year, it was a bright spot in a disappointing season. But A.C. Leonard and his 12 sacks disappeared into free agency. Jake Ceresna and his 12 sacks were traded to Toronto for receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr.

And former Carolina Panther Kony Ealy is also gone.

Jones said he expects to rotate a committee of six players through the line. Even so, a lot of focus is on former Arizona Cardinal, Miami Dolphin and Seattle Seahawk Robert Nkemdiche, who played 38 NFL games.

“For now, this is the right move. I like this, but I want to be back in the NFL,” Nkemdiche said. “This is what I like doing, so I am having fun with this. This is fun. I like the opportunity and everything about it. I’m just focused on getting the Grey Cup.

“I see a team that can compete, and can win as many games as we want.”

2023 record: 4-14, fifth in the West Division

Did you know?: Newly signed kicker Boris Bede is going to make a major difference on special teams. He is the CFL all-time leader in kickoff average (69.4 yards). Dean Faithfull hit on 78.6 per cent of his field-goal attempts in 2023; in Toronto, Bede converted at a 94.9 per cent clip.

Key additions: QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson (New Orleans, USFL), WR Kurleigh Gittens Jr. (Toronto), K Boris Bede (Toronto), DL Robert Nkemdiche (Michigan, USFL)

Key losses: DL A.C Leonard (free agency), DL Jake Ceresna (Toronto), WR Steven Dunbar Jr. (Hamilton)

Players to watch: Bethel-Thompson, Lewis, Brown

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 3, 2024.

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