EDMONTON — Culture change.
Those two words best describe what the Edmonton Elks wanted to accomplish going into the 2023 season. It’s a term being used by general manager and head coach Chris Jones. It’s used by starting quarterback Taylor Cornelius. It’s used by pretty well everyone wearing a green and gold jersey in training camp.
The Elks are one of the CFL’s proudest franchises, but the last couple of seasons have represented the lowest point in the team’s history. Two seasons without a home win. Two last-place finishes in the Western Division.
In 2022, when Jones was brought back to the team he led to the Grey Cup in 2015, he spoke about bringing the green and gold mystique back to Edmonton. He talked about how the Elks should be seen as the Cadillac franchise of the league.
“This is where I try to build a legacy,” he said when he was re-hired.
But, after a year of disappointment, will this season be that first step back towards glory?
One thing is for sure — the mood around this team is different than it was at this time last year.
“Guys have got to enjoy coming to work and being around one another,” said Jones. “It’s a marathon. Guys have to be looking forward — and I am speaking (about) players and coaches — to seeing one another and pulling the same way.”
The Elks had a quarterbacking carousel going into last season. Cornelius didn't dress early in the year with Nick Arbuckle and rookie Tre Ford getting starts.
But Arbuckle was traded to Ottawa and Ford got hurt, opening the door for Cornelius to take the starter’s job. He passed for 2,768 yard in 12 games.
There is no quarterback controversy in 2023. Cornelius is the clear No. 1.
“It’s a confidence lift,” said Cornelius. “Even at the end of last year, it felt the same way. The support that the coaching staff had, Geroy (assistant GM Geroy Simon) and all those guys, it just helps your confidence. It’s exciting.”
Cornelius said that, as training camp wrapped, veteran defensive back Ed Gainey gathered the team and spoke about how things will be different in 2023.
“He talked about the culture change and the way the guys feel and the energy around here,” said Cornelius. “It’s completely different.”
Cornelius will have plenty of new targets. The Elks made a big splash on the free-agent market, bringing in three marquee receivers: Geno Lewis (Montreal), Steven Dunbar Jr. (Hamilton) and Kyran Moore (Saskatchewan).
Lewis amassed 1,303 receiving yards last season, while Dunbar went for 1,000 yards. Moore has fought injuries the last couple of seasons, but the Elks are hoping for a return to his 2019 form, when he registered 996 yards.
Add to that second-year receiver Dillon Mitchell, the deep threat who had 637 yards in half a season.
“For the quarterbacks, for Taylor, we just need them to put it in an area for us,” said Lewis. “We’re going to go out there and make them look good and help them to the best of our ability."
The passing game excels when there is a strong running game. And Kevin Brown, who ran for 486 yards in just seven games, averaged an eye-popping 6.6 yards per carry.
“KB is a dog, man,” Lewis said of his new teammate. “This is my first time really getting to see him. He’s very consistent, works real hard and I am excited to see him keep being successful as his career keeps moving.”
The Elks also shored up the defence, bringing in defensive back Loucheiz Purifoy, who made 55 tackles and picked off three passes for the B.C. Lions last year. And defensive lineman A.C. Leonard, who had 23 sacks over the previous three seasons with the Roughriders, will bolster the Elks’ defensive front.
But there is one free-agent signing that won’t pan out. Kevin Francis, the special-teams ace who led the CFL in kickoff/punt return tackles in 2022, was brought to Edmonton from the Lions. But, soon after the deal was made, Francis publicly stated he wasn’t happy with the contract terms and didn’t report to camp. He’s on the Elks’ suspended list.
The Elks made about 500 seats available as part of a guaranteed win promotion before their home opener Sunday against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Fans who buy the seats will get to keep coming back, for no extra charge, until the Elks win a game.
Really, they can’t go three years without a home win, can they?
2022 record: 4-14, fifth, West Division
Home record in 2022 (and 2021): Zero wins
Key additions: WR Steven Dunbar Jr. (Hamilton), WR Geno Lewis (Montreal), WR Kyran Moore (Saskatchewan), DB Loucheiz Purifoy (B.C.), DL A.C. Leonard (Saskatchewan)
Key losses: WR Kenny Lawler (Winnipeg), WR Derel Walker (Saskatchewan)
Players to watch: Lewis, Dunbar, WR Dillon Mitchell, RB Kevin Brown
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2022.
Steven Sandor, The Canadian Press