RB James Wilder Jr. ‘setting the standard’ in Edmonton Elks training camp after brief retirement

At the start of every season, you are likely to hear from quarterbacks across the league about just how excited they are to work with any number of new offensive weapons.

It’s rarely disingenuous, but the excitement can often be manufactured. A quarterback has to instill confidence in his teammates, so what else do you expect the player to say? However, every once in a while a glimmer of pure, genuine excitement shines through and that’s when you know something truly special is about to take place.

From the way Trevor Harris’ eyes light up when talking about James Wilder Jr., Edmonton Elks fans are in for one hell of a year.

“He’ll tell you that ever since 2017 I’ve messaged back and forth with him and been figuring out how we can get on the same team. It really started heating up after 2019 in Edmonton and I got his phone number and said ‘Hey, let’s chat man. Let’s talk about trying to get you here,'” Harris said of his new running back with obvious glee.

“It’s awesome seeing him in the backfield as a guy I truly have believed in for a long time and I think he’s capable of things that I don’t think he knows he’s capable of. He’s in the right spot to draw those things out.”

While the love of a quarterback is vitally important, Harris is far from the only one heaping praise on the freshly unretired ball carrier. Head coach Jaime Elizondo was similarly effusive this week.

“I could not be more impressed with James and in a lot of different ways,” Elizondo raved.  “It starts with the leadership component. He’s been great in that room, coaching the young running backs. He’s been great setting the energy and the tempo for practice. His demeanour has been incredible.”

Not long ago, Wilder Jr. looked well on his way to becoming one of the CFL’s biggest stars. Undrafted out of Florida State University in 2014, he spent three years on NFL practice rosters before arriving in Canada with the Toronto Argonauts in 2017. That year, he helped power the Boatmen to a Grey Cup title, rushing for 872 yards and five touchdowns while adding 533 receiving yards and earning named the league’s Most Outstanding Rookie award.

Then came controversy. An off-season contract dispute was resolved, but his production declined each year after as the Argonauts’ ship began to sink. After a rift formed with the team in 2019, he asked for and received his release ahead of 2020 free agency to sign with the Montreal Alouettes.

When that season was placed in jeopardy by the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilder Jr. was the first player to opt for retirement, choosing to focus on his training business and a high school coaching job in Tampa Bay, FL. Unlike many others however, the running back has chosen to jump right back in for 2021, signing with the Elks in February.

After a year away from the game, the question is whether a 29-year-old running back can recapture the magic and Elizondo has a simple answer.

“From what we’ve seen so far, we sure think so. It’s hard to tackle a guy that big and that powerful, but I think James brings a lot of dimensions to us. It’s not just as a running threat,” the head coach explained.

“He’s got really good vision in pass protection, as well as in the run game. That’s where it starts, but he’s also got really good hands catching out of the backfield. So he’s an all-down back and can be a very versatile force in a lot of different ways.”

“You can match him up on a WILL [weak-side] linebacker out in space in a one-on-one [situation], you can flex him out to the field to remove a guy from the box and get a matchup with a MIKE [middle] linebacker. Those are the things that he’ll bring to the table, but I also think that it starts with his savviness and his understanding of the game.”

Elizondo refers to Wilder Jr. as the “Betts of the offence”, referencing his praise for Canadian defensive end Mathieu Betts’ work ethic earlier this week. Harris knows exactly what his head coach is talking about.

“He sets a standard for that running back room and you can see it spread throughout the days. Screen passes, he’s getting downfield and blocking the free safety. It’s not things that you see from running backs typically,” Harris said. “He’s running hard, he’s treating every day like it’s his last and that’s kind of the culture we want to set here.”

While Harris may have never seen anything like it from a running back before, Elizondo has and the comparison to a three-time CFL all-star isn’t one he makes lightly.

“In 2008 when I first came into the league with Montreal, Avon Cobourne was that example. You would see him on a fake handoff going this way and then just see this guy shooting across the screen at full speed the other way. You would just notice him,” he recalled. “It makes it easier as a coach when you have a couple of guys doing that because it sets the standard. That’s what James has been doing.”

More important than tone-setting in practice, the expectation is that Wilder Jr. will soon deliver the same intensity in games. Whether the six-foot-four, 225-pound back is running over opponents, going around them in space or getting behind them in coverage, Wilder Jr. will be taking the pressure off the rest of the offence and bringing balance to the attack.

That’s enough to put a smile on the face of any coach or quarterback.

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