February 14, 2024

Elks bolster special teams in free agency

Toronto kicker Boris Bede celebrates with quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson after kicking the game winning field goal with no time left on the clock in their game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in Hamilton, Ontario on Monday, October 11, 2021. (CFL PHOTO - Geoff Robins )

EDMONTON, AB — In a game of inches, the Edmonton Elks have found themselves picking up yards.

General Manager & Head Coach Chris Jones and company are looking to flip the field on their opponents in 2024, and they came into CFL Free Agency with a plan to improve the Elks special teams heading into next season. Safe to say, mission accomplished.

The Elks announced the signing of all-star kick returner Javon Leake on Tuesday, giving them a dynamic player in the return game. He joins big-legged kicker Boris Bede who was inked a week earlier during the CFL Communications window as the final piece of the kicking game overhaul.

Last season, Edmonton ranked last in the Canadian Football League in kickoff average (57.9 yards), fifth in kickoff return average (21.9 yards), last in net punt average (33.6 yards), eighth in punt return average (10.3 yards), and was in a three-way tie for fifth in average starting field position (36.9 yard line).

Enter Leake and Bede. 

Leake led the CFL in kick return yards with 1,216, the third best single-season total of all-time. That doesn’t even mention the four return touchdowns the 25-year-old took to the house for the 16-2 Toronto Argonauts. Jones is aware of just how hard the Maryland product is to game plan against, and is happy he’ll be on the Elks sideline for next season.

“I know for sure how hard he is to defend, and I know the record setting year that he had last year. The Canadian Football League is pretty old and when they start talking about the best ever, that’s a pretty strong statement,” Jones said about Leake’s 2023 campaign. “He’s got a lot of top end talent.”

Leake’s game-breaking ability earned him the nod as the CFL’s Most Outstanding Special Teams Player last season. Making plays happen is just a mindset for the Elks newest player. 

“I just feel like I could score whenever I touch the ball,” Leake said. “That’s the confidence I have and I feel like I’m a game changer and I could just help a team out in that phase. Anytime I touch the ball, I just feel like I could be explosive and I could help my team out.”

When it comes to the 34-year-old Bede, Jones knows what he is going to get. The native of France still has a cannon of a leg eight years into his pro career. He led the CFL in kick off average by nearly 10 yards, had the second best punting average (47.6 yards) and knocked through a career high 94.9 per cent of his field goals in 2023.

“Once you approach that midfield stripe, then he can kick successful field goals. That’s first and foremost,” Jones said. “His points win games, but then the drives start on kickoff. He’s the only guy that can get the ball down close to the goal line, and he still can do it. I mean, we saw him time after time last year drive the football down toward the goal line. I think with both of those guys, field position is key.”

The additions to the special teams unit will add a little more ‘edge of your seat’ action for Elks fans that they haven’t been able to feel in quite a while. The eight-year streak of not having a return touchdown was broken by Deontez Alexander last season, but it’s been a while since the Green and Gold have had a consistent threat to take the ball to the house on any kick.

Leake is aware of that and is excited about the challenge.

“Gizmo (Williams) was a great returner. Like you said, the greatest to do it in CFL. So just being able to put on that uniform and trying to just chase behind that, it’s exciting for me,” Leake said. “It’s going to be a fun opportunity, man. Hopefully I can do what you said and just bring back that excitement and return back to Edmonton and just work and just be blessed with every opportunity I get when I get back there and return.”