Ottawa Redblacks' Abdul Kanneh (14) tackles Edmonton Elks' James Wilder Jr. (32) during second half CFL action in Edmonton, Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson.

Veteran running back Wilder Jr. accumulates 161 net offensive yards in Edmonton debut

Veteran running back Wilder Jr. accumulates 161 net offensive yards in Edmonton debut

It certainly hasn’t taken James Wilder Jr. long to scrape the rust off his game.

The six-foot-three, 230-pound running back accumulated 161 total offensive yards in the Edmonton Elks season-opening 16-12 home loss to the Ottawa Redblacks on Saturday night. Like all CFL players, the contest was Wilder Jr.’s first since the 2019 season as the league cancelled the ‘20 campaign due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was also Wilder Jr.’s first contest with Edmonton. He spent his first three CFL seasons with Toronto (2017-19) and signed with Montreal in 2020 before retiring, then coming out of retirement to sign a one-year deal with Edmonton on Feb. 9.

“I was adamant about doing my own workout plan this off-season, doing my own treatments, spending more and investing more into my body,” Wilder Jr. said. “I expected to have some big games but there are a lot of other things that go into it.

“Our offensive line made it easy and many of my catches came on checkdowns because the linebackers were dropping 10 yards deep because they had to respect our receivers. So, yeah, there’s a lot more to it but man, it did feel good to get out there and knock off some rust.”

Wilder Jr. was a key cog in an offence that rolled up 443 net yards, held the ball for almost 36 minutes and recorded 26 first downs. The former Florida State star rushed for 89 yards on 15 carries and added nine receptions for 72 yards.

But finishing was a problem for Edmonton, which settled for four Sean Whyte field goals. Quarterback Trevor Harris was 33-of-44 passing for 333 yards but also had three interceptions, including one Ottawa’s Abdul Kanneh returned 102 yards for a touchdown.

“There’s a lot more we could’ve done to make things cleaner (for Harris),” Wilder Jr. said. “I gave up a sack that ended up on him.

“Of course, the quarterback gets the rap but it’s a team sport. It’s on all of us.”

Overall, Elks head coach Jamie Elizondo was happy with Wilder Jr.’s first contest in an Edmonton jersey.

“I was really impressed with Wilder,” Elizondo told reporters. “There are things he’s got to get better at, too, and he knows it.

“For the first game, we’re really, really disappointed in the loss. We gave that one away.”

Before Saturday’s kickoff, game officials spoke with Wilder Jr. regarding how he was wearing his uniform. It was tucked up underneath, showing Wilder Jr.’s impressive six-pack.

Elizondo, for one, would like to see his players abide by CFL uniform rules.

“You can’t play the game that way so that one is simple,” he said. “We do everything the way it should be done during the game and that was addressed.”

Wilder Jr. said he’s worn his uniform like that often, adding it’s how many players wore their jerseys when his father, James Wilder Sr., was an NFL running back (1981-90 with Tampa Bay, Detroit and Washington). But on Wednesday, Wilder Jr. suggested he’d been fined by the CFL for the look.

“I like the look it’s cool but the jersey really doesn’t go down to my waist it’s untuckable,” he tweeted. “I respectfully showed the ref the example that it’s not long enough to tuck into pants and proceeded to try.

“The ref then threw a joke. I was mic’d so check it and return my fine please.”

Wilder Jr. ran for 2,023 yards on 360 carries (5.62-yard average) with nine TDs while registering 154 receptions for 1,487 yards and five touchdowns over three seasons with Toronto. He was the CFL’s top rookie in 2017 (rushing for 872 yards and five TDs, adding 51 catches for 533 yards) and capped his campaign helping the Argos win a Grey Cup title.

And although he’s only one game into his Edmonton tenure, Wilder Jr. has become a big fan of Elizondo’s offence.

“Coach is going to let me pound it, he’s going to let me get outside … he’s sending me in motion and getting me one-on-one with linebackers,” Wilder Jr. said. “When you’re six foot three and 230 pounds you can be taken for a big back who sometimes can only do certain types of plays and kind of be one-dimensional.

“But coach Jamie sees the potential, he sees the skill set I have. It’s very diverse and the playbook is very open for the running back so I’m in love with it.”

Edmonton (0-1) host Montreal on Saturday night. The Alouettes will be making their season debut so while they’ll have recent game film of the Elks to watch, the same won’t apply for the home team.

“Part of the game is adjusting on the fly,” Wilder Jr. said. “We have a great coaching staff and players to be able to make adjustments.

“You definitely have to be worried about your opponent but at same time we have a lot of things we need to clean up … I think it’s what we need to do in order to get clicking.”

The time immediately following a season opener is usually a painful one for players, something that’s definitely been compounded with the CFL having not played since 2019. Wilder Jr. said while he worked hard this off-season to prepare himself for a return to the rigours of football, he’s been feeling constant reminders about how long he’s been away from the game.

“I’ve been investing in my body and taking care of my body but I guess I forgot (about feeling sore),” he said with a chuckle. “The night of the game it’s hard to sleep, you’re banged up and bruised up and that next day pretty much outside of treatment you don’t leave the bed.

“But I promise you I’ve been praying to have this feeling back. That sore feeling is all part of the process so you have to enjoy it all.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 11, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

CFL