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Edmonton Elks’ young secondary will be tested early and often in home-opener

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Week 1 of the CFL regular season brings two things: plenty of excitement with a huge helping of uncertainty. The Edmonton Elks will host the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Sunday to kick-off the 2023 season.

In some respects, both teams have a lot of familiarity from 2022. The biggest change might be in the Elks’ secondary and the Riders’ offence.

Veteran quarterback Trevor Harris signed with the Riders in the off-season. The Riders named Kelly Jeffrey offensive coordinator, the first time he’s ever held the position in the CFL.

The Elks’ secondary features three first-year players in Kai Gray, Darrius Bratton and Dwayne Thompson. With Aaron Grymes still trying to get fully healthy from an ACL injury suffered during the 2022 pre-season, the only veterans in the Elks’ secondary are Ed Gainey and 2022 Western Division All-Star Loucheiz Purifoy.

Elks head coach Chris Jones says he fully expects Harris to test the three rookies in his defensive backfield.

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“The reality is we have three guys who have never played a game and they struggled at times today (Thursday) collectively,” Jones said. “We have to do a great job in man coverage, so it’s a matter of us playing our technique and having a good belief system.”

Thompson is doing his best to learn the CFL game, especially with the wide field and the unlimited motion from the receivers. Thompson, a product of Valdosta State, has watched the film on Harris and feels he has a good read on his mechanics.

“He’s a good spot thrower,” Thompson said. “I’m looking forward to playing an experienced quarterback for my first game. I know it’s going to be an experience and there will be and ups and downs. I’m definitely looking forward to a battle.”

O-line banking on experience as catalyst for improvement

Sunday’s matchup will feature the two teams who gave up the most quarterback sacks in the CFL in 2022.

The Riders surrendered a whopping 77 sacks. The Elks gave up 24 fewer sacks but were still not happy with giving up 53.

The Elks chose to stay the course with the offensive line instead making wholesale changes. Four of the starting five from the O-line are back in 2023. Andrew Garnett, David Foucault, Mark Korte and Tomas Jack-Kurdyla. The one new edition on the starting group is 2016 first overall pick Josiah St. John. Korte became the Elks centre mid-way through the 2022 season after David Beard was traded to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

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Korte says keeping the group together should allow the group to get better.

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“When you look at offensive lines around the league and you look at the ones who are really playing well, it’s the groups that have been together for two, three and four years,” Korte said. “Having a group that finished last year together and adding Josiah, who has been with this staff before and was drafted by this staff. It’s a group that really all know each other.”

Edmonton Elks offensive lineman Mark Korte on the new-look offence and the flipping the switch from training-camp to regular-season mode

One other factor that will improve the offensive line, according to head coach Jones, is that the snap-to-throw ratio from Taylor Cornelius has been faster compared to last season. A quicker release should relieve some pressure off the O-line. A strong running game will help as well if Kevin Brown can get back to 6.5-yard average per carry he recorded last season.

Elks bring in punter with a big leg

The Elks made their final roster cuts last weekend. They also brought in a new kicker in Canadian Jake Julien, who was 2021 fourth round pick of the Ottawa Redblacks.

Julien spent time with the New England Patriots in 2022 and played in one pre-season game. Julien recorded a 44-yard punt average in five seasons at Eastern Michigan.

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Jones says he will rely on Julien’s hang time for his cover unit to get downfield. Julien during practice recorded hang times in the 4.5 to 4.75 second range. Overall, Julien is just happy to play football again.

“Really excited to play ball after a year off last year and bouncing between teams,” Julien said. “I’m really excited get another season under my belt and play with the guys.”

Jones becomes a social media star

When I first met Chris Jones, he was the defensive coordinator of the Calgary Stampeders in 2009. Five years later, Jones would become a first-time head coach with Edmonton and helped the team to a Grey Cup in 2015. Jones lives and breathes football, sometimes I worry it’s to extreme levels but that’s his element.

The longer I got the chance to know Chris Jones, you learn he has a fun side to him, which is one of many reasons players gravitate to him. That being said, no one ever thought he would take it to the next level by reading mean tweets.

The post has been viewed over 72,000 times on Twitter alone. It’s simply brilliant.

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The Elks will open their regular season schedule at home on Sunday afternoon against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Kick-off on The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium will be at 5 p.m. 630 CHED will have live coverage starting with Countdown to Kick-off at 3:30 p.m.