The 2021 Edmonton Elks were known as a dumpster fire, but the 2022 version of the team is hoping for a different type of ignition.
After an 0-3 start to the season, head coach Chris Jones dropped a bombshell ahead of their matchup with the equally winless Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Once hailed as the future of CFL quarterbacking, Nick Arbuckle is out as the team’s starting pivot. In his place, the Elks are turning to rookie Canadian Tre Ford, just four weeks into his first professional season.
“We’ve dropped three games here now and we’ve played some good football, but very inconsistent football,” Jones told team broadcaster 630 CHED ahead of the game. “Tre’s gonna bring a different package to the game and different abilities to the game than Nick.”
It’s a Canada Day storyline unlike any we’ve seen in recent history. While the meteoric rise of Nathan Rourke with the B.C. Lions already has people across the country buzzing about Canadian quarterbacking, Ford is a homegrown talent of a different variety.
Rourke was a prolific dual-threat pivot at the University of Ohio, leaving this country’s borders to earn his way to pro football stardom. Ford is a true product of the Canadian system, having played collegiately at the University of Waterloo and becoming the first Black quarterback to win the Hec Crighton Trophy as Canada’s top university football player.
His statistics were jaw-dropping and still failed to do him justice. If you thought Rourke was fast racing down the sideline for a 50-yard touchdown on Thursday night, just wait until you see Ford on the move. He blazed a 4.45-second forty-yard dash in the pre-draft process, putting him in another stratosphere from Rourke’s reported 4.7.
That unique athletic ability is what earned Ford two NFL mini-camp invites and saw him become the first Canadian quarterback drafted in the first round of the CFL Draft since 1980. Edmonton selected him eighth overall in 2022, seven spots higher than Rourke was taken two years previously.
Despite the impressive accolades, Ford’s challenge is a different one than Rourke’s. While his generational athleticism is unquestioned, not all believe he can stick at the quarterback position long-term. That’s an all too common refrain heard about athletic, Black quarterbacks — just ask former NFL MVP Lamar Jackson — but Ford must also battle the stigma of coming from the U Sports ranks.
The pace of play and level of talent he’ll face Friday will be unlike any defence he ripped apart in college, which is why so many homegrown Canadian quarterbacks haven’t been given a shot in the past. Only a mad scientist like Chris Jones would be so bold as to thrust the rookie out there this early and he very nearly did it sooner.
“His stats, as far as when we did all of our grading out of camp, were very similar to Nick’s and I mean very, very close. They’re almost clones of one another,” Jones explained.
“We felt like the decision to go with Nick early was out of his experience in the league and we were trying to lean on that experience. Unfortunately, we’re sitting here at oh-and-three and we’re attempting to try something different to see if that helps us win the game.”
Arbuckle was 61-of-95 passing for 795 yards, two touchdowns and six interceptions during Edmonton’s inauspicious start to the season, struggles few attributed to his play. There is little doubt that Jones is now doing with his quarterbacks what he is famous for with his defences, throwing an elite athlete to the flames and hoping they can produce a spark big enough that it lights up the whole team.
Ford, at least, was informed of the decision early in order to take full advantage of a shortened week of practice with the first-team unit.
“I actually found out earlier in the week. Coach kind of told me and was trying to get me to mentally prepare myself for the game,” Ford told 630 CHED.
“That’s what I’ve been doing this week. It was a little bit of a shorter week, we didn’t get all of our practices, but I just had to stay on my keys mentally, read the defence, see the blitzes and see everything work out for our offence.”
The rookie was thrown into the fire once before, briefly stepping in for Arbuckle during the team’s Week 1 shellacking at the hands of Rourke’s B.C. Lions. He went one-for-three passing for eight yards and an interception in that outing while scrambling for another eight on the ground.
No reasonable person would have expected the young pivot to light it up in such an adverse situation but the team has set a higher bar this time around. This is no Canada Day gimmick or feel-good story. Chris Jones is placing the fate of the Elks in Tre Ford’s hands.
“We’re gonna attempt to win the football game,” he insisted. “Every decision that we make is to win the football game and we feel like Tre’s gonna bring some things, hopefully, to our team that we need.”