September 15, 2023

Facing Ford: Elks’ speedy QB presents challenge to Roughriders’ defence

The one time Godfrey Onyeka and Tre Ford crossed paths in a game of organized football, the score was 71-24. 

Onyeka — now a third-year defensive back with the Saskatchewan Roughriders — registered eight defensive tackles (including two for a loss), a sack and a forced fumble to help the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks defeat the host Waterloo Warriors on Sept. 23, 2017. 

Ford, who is to start at quarterback for the Edmonton Elks at Mosaic Stadium on Friday, was a U Sports rookie when he faced the Golden Hawks six years ago. 

He didn’t even start that Week 4 Ontario University Athletics game against Wilfrid Laurier. But when he did take part in the proceedings, as lopsided as they were, he left an overwhelmingly positive impression. 

“He had a 70-yard touchdown run that got called back,” recalls Onyeka, who is currently on the six-game injured list. 

“I was the only person who could have stopped him. I was running and I was like, ‘There’s no way I can catch him.’ He was that fast, right out of high school.” 

Even with that long-distance play being called back, and despite sharing the quarterback’s duties on that dreadful day for Wilfrid Laurier, Ford nonetheless led his team in rushing. He carried the ball 10 times for 86 yards. 

In a less-structured setting, Ford earned plaudits as an athlete and an individual. 

“In the off-season, we all did skelly (seven-on-seven drills) every Saturday,” Onyeka says. “He was in Waterloo and he’d drive out to Mississauga, because we didn’t have a quarterback. He’s that kind of dude. 

“He’s a super-nice guy. He would organize things and he would pick up guys on his way. He’s a great human being. 

“But, hopefully, things don’t go well for him this week.” 

Ford is the talk of the CFL as he leads the Elks into Friday night’s game. 

The Elks had an 0-8 record when Ford, who was selected eighth overall in the 2022 CFL Draft, took over behind centre. Since then, Edmonton has won three of its five games. 

Over that span, Ford has thrown for 990 yards and six touchdowns, with three interceptions. He has also rushed 39 times for 401 yards — an eye-popping average of 10.1 yards per carry — and two scores. Included is a 135-yard rushing game against the host Calgary Stampeders on Sept. 4. 

“He has been playing really well, at a really high level,” says fellow second-year CFL quarterback Jake Dolegala, who is poised to make his fourth successive start for Saskatchewan. “They’ve been putting up some points.  

“Props to him.” 

The Roughriders, like Edmonton, have started three different quarterbacks this season. 

Ford follows Taylor Cornelius and Jarret Doege, both of whom were demoted. 

Dolegala, by contrast, assumed the starter’s reins after injuries to Trevor Harris (knee) and Mason Fine (hamstring). 

Dolegala has a 2-1 record as a starter this season. The victories have been against the West Division’s two top-seeded teams — the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (10-3) and B.C. Lions (8-4). 

Entering this weekend’s action, the Roughriders are third in the West at 6-6, followed by Calgary (4-9) and Edmonton (3-10). 

“We know it’s going to be a battle,” Dolegala says of Friday’s matchup. “They’ve got a lot to play for, as do we. 

“I think it’s going to be an exciting game.” 

And a different one, considering the presence of Ford. 

Cornelius started at quarterback for the Elks when they lost to Saskatchewan by scores of 17-13 (on June 11 at Commonwealth Stadium) and 12-11 (July 6 at Mosaic Stadium). 

“It felt like we had to reintroduce ourselves to Edmonton,” Roughriders Head Coach Craig Dickenson says. “A lot of film has gone by since we last played them. 

“It’s still the same core group of guys and still the same staff, but they’re definitely playing better. They’ve done a good job over there and it’s going to be a good game. They’re a better team now than they were the last time we played them.” 

Edmonton was averaging 13.1 points per game and had been shut out twice before Ford took over at quarterback.  

With Ford behind centre, the Elks have averaged 27.8 points per game. 

None of this surprises Roughriders defensive back Kosi Onyeka. 

“Tre Ford is an incredible athlete — an incredible person as well,” Godfrey Onyeka’s teammate and cousin says. “I’ve been playing against him for a long time, actually. 

“We played rep football — youth football. I played for the Brampton Warriors and he played for the Niagara Spears, so I’ve known about Tre for about 10 years now. 

“He comes from a great city and a great family. He’s an incredible athlete, with incredible speed. 

“You’ve just got to worry about the tackling angles you take on Tre because, if you don’t take the right angles, he has a tendency to make people look somewhat silly — and, obviously, we don’t want that. 

“There has been a heavy emphasis on just doing our jobs this week and not worrying about having to cover for someone else, because that’s exactly how people overcompensate, and that’s exactly how he takes advantage and makes big plays against the defence.” 

Like his cousin, Kosi can speak from experience. 

On Oct. 16, 2021, Kosi played for the Guelph Gryphons in their 27-10 victory over the Ford-quarterbacked Waterloo squad. 

Despite the lopsidedness of the game, Ford turned heads by throwing a touchdown pass and rushing 14 times for 176 yards. 

“It’s difficult for the guys covering the receivers to turn around and play the quarterback if they’re guarding their man,” Kosi says. “You’ve got to be wary of that. At the same time, you don’t want to focus too much on that. You’ve got to worry about your job. 

“At the end of the day, if he wants to scramble, this is different from college and there’s guys ready to hit — and you don’t want to take too many hits as a quarterback.” 

Another element to the equation is the presence of Kevin Brown, who rushed 15 times for 143 yards on Saturday as the Elks edged the visiting Stampeders 25-23.  

Ford plus Brown equals a puzzle. 

“You’ve got to handle them both,” Dickenson says. “You’ve got to do a really good job with your gap responsibilities, you’ve got to be physical and play on their side of the line, and you’ve got to understand that they’re going to try to hand the ball off to Brown. But when he doesn’t have it, Tre does, and they’re both good runners.  

“They’re a good team. It’s going to be a good challenge.”