Can Taylor Cornelius take the next step?: six things to watch in the Elks’ home opener

Photo: Paul Swanson/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The Edmonton Elks open their 2023 season on home turf this Sunday, coming in as point favourites against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Here are some things I will be watching for.

Run Run Run

Edmonton may have one of the most dynamic backfields we’ve seen in quite some time, with Kevin Brown looking to improve on his team Most Outstanding Rookie nomination from last year. The speedster averaged 6.6 yards per carry in only seven games. A full season would have projected at over 1000 yards, a goal he will be striving for this year.

If he needs a break, Shannon Brooks is more than capable of getting the hard yards. The preseason rookie standout has speed and isn’t afraid of contact downfield. I’m intrigued to see how the team will balance the two backs.

Growing Corn

Taylor Cornelius is in his third season, but this is the first time he has had the same offensive coordinator and entered training camp as QB1. In practice and the very few snaps he got in the preseason, he has looked calmer and more poised than in past years.

Cornelius showcased his ability to escape and run as needed last year. Coupled with the strong running game, that should open up time for tosses downfield to his highly
touted receiving corps. The development of a connection between him and all-star receiver Eugene Lewis will be something to keep an eye on.

Defensive Questions

I don’t think there is much concern about the front seven in the sophomore iteration of Chris Jones’ defence. Jake Ceresna will lead a fearsome defensive line that should benefit from the addition of A.C. Leonard and a full year of J-Min Pelley.

After dealing with injury for much of last season, Nyles Morgan returns to the middle linebacker position. In the six games that Morgan was able to play in 2022, the opposition’s rushing average dropped by almost 50 yards. That trend continued this preseason. Fourth-overall 2022 draft pick Enock Makonzo looks to have taken the next step at the strongside linebacker position.

The front seven is not the part to keep an eye on though as the secondary will be largely revamped with only Ed Gainey and Loucheiz Purifoy as veterans. I will be watching newcomers Kai Gray, Dwayne Thompson, and Darius Bratton. There will be a lot for them to prove in game one and they will be leaning on the pressure provided up front to help prevent explosive plays.

Special Teams

For many years now, the special teams have been a sore spot in Edmonton but not usually on the kicking side of things. Elks fans have been spoiled by placekicking since 2015 and Sean Whyte and Sergio Castillo will be hard acts to follow.

Dean Faithfull will start the season with the task of filling those boots — as they call shoes in his native Britain. The 36-year-old rookie went six-for-nine in the preseason and Jones has said that he will have a field goal target of the 40-yard line until “he figures out he can hit a 50-yarder with the same exact stroke.”

Punting will also be something to watch, as the Elks brought in Ottawa Redblacks’ cut Jake Julien at the end of camp and have Michael Domagala on the practice roster. Julien will get the nod in the first game and can provide up to 4.7 seconds of hang time for the cover team.

It has also been seven years since the Elks had a return touchdown. Strides were taken last year, but the unfortunate passing of Christian Saulsberry finds the team with new returners once again. Kyran Moore will get most of the reps but I suspect we’ll see Gavin Cobb get a few opportunities as well.

On a side note, Christian’s mom will be in attendance for Sunday’s game. I look forward to meeting her and celebrating Christian as best we can. Maybe that tribute will spark the team to some return success.

Off the field

Victor Cui has had a full year to get the planning done for this year’s games. The opener will feature a salute to the Armed Forces and a pre-game flyover.

An expanded tailgate area, new food options, an explanation of penalties as they happen, a
new on-field host and more music variety all debuted in the preseason. To top off the fun, the team released a section of “guaranteed win” tickets, where fans get to keep coming to games until they see a victory.

The atmosphere has all the makings of being electric. Fans will be ready to break the streak and start the season on a much better note.

Andrew Hoskins is a lifelong Edmonton resident and the host of the Turf District Podcast.