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What to Expect at a CFL Tryout: My Experience at the Edmonton Elks Tryout

So you want to play professional football in Canada. Most CFL teams hold 4 or 5 tryouts in various locations throughout the United States in the offseason typically in April or early May.

The pathway for Canadian collegiate players to enter the CFL goes through the CFL Draft. However, the path is different for American players who can be signed by a CFL team at any time provided their rights are not held on a different CFL team’s negotiation list.

What to Expect

CFL teams charge a $100 registration fee to participate in the tryout, although many teams refund it to players who make the team.

The registration process can take some time so you may be standing in line for the registration or waiting on the field for the tryout to commence after registering for some time. Use that time to mentally and physically prepare for the tryout.

The first phase of the tryout is athletic testing. Expect to be timed performing the 40-yard dash and the shuttle. The testing phase can vary among CFL teams such as the Edmonton Elks also measuring prospects’ broad jump distance.

After the physical testing, there will be a long time of doing 1 on 1 drills. You will likely be split up into position groups. Linemen will be split into their own group for one-on-ones, receivers and defensive backs into a group, and runningbacks and fullbacks will go against linebackers. Some teams may run other drills such as the BC Lions advertise they will also run the skelly drill.

Be sure to read the details on the tryout page for the team you wish to try out for to make sure there are no important details you are missing or any changes leading up to the event. For example the BC Lions and Montreal Alouettes are not working out kicking specialist at their tryouts this year. You will also need a valid passport in order for a team to bring you on to their organization.

It can be very difficult to make a CFL team through an open tryout and the odds are not in your favor. Teams can look at as many as 100 players at a tryout. There are instances in which players earn a spot on a team, and are given an opportunity to play and make a big impact.

Success Story

Cole Spieker is one such example of a player making their team through an open tryout and making a big impact in the CFL. Spieker attended an open tryout with the Montreal Alouettes ahead of the 2022 season. The following morning he was signed to a contract that got him to training camp. Spieker was one of only 2 players the Alouettes signed from open tryouts that year and the only player from the open tryouts on the team after final cuts ahead of the regular season.

“My advice is we only get a limited amount of opportunities so leave nothing on the table. Give maximum effort at every drill and during every rep.” Cole Spieker stated when asked if he had any advice for a player attending an open tryout.  “Trust your training, stay positive and confident throughout the ups and downs of the tryout. Stay in the present and focus only on the current drill as you go. Wide receivers hit the waggle hard and use it to your advantage. Defensive backs be prepared for the receiver’s having more speed off the line than you are used to from stationary receivers.”

Spieker began the 2022 regular season on the practice roster where he spent much of his rookie season. He was first dressed as a 2nd-string receiver in week 19 for his first CFL game and was not targeted. The next game Spieker was back on the practice roster before he got his first CFL start the following week.

Spieker’s first career start came in the Alouette’s final game of the regular season in 2022 and he made a big impact catching 6 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown. His second career start came in Montreal’s loss in the Eastern Final to the Toronto Argonauts during which Spieker caught 4 passes for 66 yards.

Fast forward a year later and Spieker is a Grey Cup Champion. He caught 3 passes for 62 yards and a touchdown in Montreal’s Grey Cup victory over Winnipeg including a 31-yard pass to keep the drive alive on Montreal’s game-winning drive. Spieker also played in 12 regular season games over 2023 recording 33 catches for 389 yards and a touchdown.

My Experience

In late April of 2023 on a Saturday morning, I attended and participated in a tryout hosted by the Edmonton Elks in Detroit Michigan as a wide receiver.

The tryouts were in an indoor training facility. I was not sure if it would be on the indoor or outdoor field prior to the tryout so I was preparing for it to be around 10 °C or 50 °F and be raining. Leading up to the tryout I was working on catching passes outside whenever I had the chance when it was raining as a result.

The atmosphere in the building was tense and most players in line for registration were quiet keeping to themselves. Speaking to some of the athletes around me it became clear that most players there were standout players at their respective collegiate programs often from lesser-known programs.

At the registration desk was Edmonton Elks General Manager Chris Jones collecting registration paperwork and the payment fee. He would ask questions as players register about where they are from and what position they play and other questions to get a general feel for them. When I told him I was Canadian his interest peaked as Canadian talent can be more valuable to a CFL team due to the ratio rules of the CFL.

After having the paperwork submitted the next step was to have your height and weight measured. This was done by the Assistant General Manager Geroy Simon. Geroy Simon is also the CFL’s all-time leader in receiving yards.

The registration phase was an additional opportunity for the football operations staff to get a first impression of prospective players and get a feel for them as a person.

After my registration was complete players were free to enter the fieldhouse and spend their time how they saw fit. The atmosphere was tense and very quiet with many players sitting listening to music or doing stretches. After performing my own stretches I threw my CFL football around with a couple of other players running as we caught it to get loose. It was their first time holding a CFL ball which is wider than what is used in the United States.

We were split into position groups at the start of the tryout ahead of the physical testing. The first testing my group did was the shuttle. Defensive backs went, then receivers then quarterbacks by the order of the number given to them on a large sticker on everyone’s shirt. I missed my turn initially as I was waiting behind the wrong player from a different position group. He was the lone quarterback at the tryout despite there being nearly 40 defensive backs and receivers. I approached and let Geroy Simon know as he was overseeing the shuttle drills that I was supposed to go earlier. He replied saying “Gotta pay attention 33,” in a not mad, but disappointed tone which was mortifying to hear from a childhood idol.

After we performed the shuttle my group did the broad jump before rotating to the 40-yard dash.

Once the field testing was finally complete we began doing 1 on 1 drills. It was the first time for most of the prospective players playing with the waggle. In the CFL receivers hit the line running before the ball is snapped making for a very different dynamic to receivers route running and how defensive backs defend receivers.

Many of the defensive backs were pressing the waggle to combat what was the first time many of them were defending against receivers hitting the line at full speed. Sometimes there would be some holding making for some physical reps. 

Throughout the tryout, I attempted to go through the defensive back attempting to overpower them rather than trying to go around them cleanly. In hindsight, this was not the best strategy as I needed to create separation more quickly. However, at times it was successful. Such as on my first rep I went straight at the defensive back and overpowered his press forcing him outside and creating an opening to the inside for me to hit my slant route. I caught the ball strongly which was contested as the defensive back reached back getting a hand on the ball. I broke away cleanly from the DB as I caught it and ran upfield.

As I got back to the line Geroy Simon told me “Good hands.” Being told good hands by the all-time CFL receiving yards leader was worth the price of admission even if the tryout did not go as well as I had hoped.

On some of my other reps, the strategy was not nearly as successful as I would get tied up for too long from the defensive back not breaking away cleanly in time and the route would be dead. In retrospect, I should have more often been focusing on route running and doing things like the double move or head fakes rather than trying to utilize arm strength usage as much.

At certain points throughout the tryout, we would be gathered and Chris Jones would communicate to the group. A few pieces of information stood out. He explained to everyone that this is a job interview and how players conduct themselves throughout the entire process is a part of it. Everything from how players speak to others, what they do during drills, and even how they write their name. 

Jones also conveyed that there are a lot of good football players but there are very few spots. They will reach out to a player they are interested in but otherwise, a player will not be reached out to. He explained that not being reached out to by the team does not mean you’re not a good football player and at times teams miss good players. He said years back Reggie Begelton attended one of his tryouts and was later picked up by Calgary. Begelton has since been a CFL All-Star in 2019 and 2023.

Jones also encouraged players to play arena football if they are not reached out to and recommended it as a good football pathway. Jones also reiterated the importance of having a passport in order for players to be able to join the team.

After the tryout, I asked Jones what his favorite part of doing open tryouts was and he spoke to the degree of being around the people.

Later that year, the day before the Grey Cup I spoke to Montreal Alouettes Cornerback Kabion Ento who was playing his first season of CFL football after years of being in the Green Bay Packers system. I asked him his thoughts on the effectiveness of the press against the waggle.

“To be honest, It’s all about technique, you know,” Ento answered. “Whether you’re playing off or you’re playing up pressing the waggle your feet have to be amazing. Because you know people are waggling from 10, 15 yards away. It’s definitely 10 yards away. And that’s how they hit the line of scrimmage at full speed. And so you just have to make sure that your feet are right and your eyes are right.”

“I can’t sit here and say that I wouldn’t press against the waggle. Because I mean it’s something that I would try. Probably something that I’ll be doing, that you know probably tomorrow and later in my career. But it’s difficult. But as long as your eyes and your feet are right, then to be honest, as a DB you’ll win most plays.”

2024 Open Tryout Locations

Most CFL teams do not yet have their open tryout locations announced for this offseason but there are a few that do. Expect to see more announced in the coming month.

BC Lions

Washington DC: April 6

Atlanta GA: April 7

Dallas TX: April 20

Phoenix AZ: April 21

Seattle WA: April 28

Saskatchewan Rough Riders

Dallas TX: April 6

Houston TX: April 7

Tampa Bay FL: April 13

Fort Lauderdale: April 14

Atlanta GA: May 4

Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Tampa FL: March 23

Atlanta GA: April 27

Montreal Alouettes

Richardson (Dallas) TX: April 22

Charlotte NC: April 23

Houston TX: May 6

Atlanta GA: May 7

Here is a map of last year’s open tryouts to get an idea of where some additional tryouts could be scheduled.

In 2018 Winnipeg Blue Bombers Assistant General Manager and Director of US Scouting spoke on the open tryouts in an article by Ed Tait.

“You’re looking at guys who were passed over or were maybe at small schools and didn’t get a chance to show anything at their pro days,” McManus explained. “It could be a guy who was in the NFL and got injured and is looking to get back into the game after taking some time off to recover. Maybe it’s a guy we liked at NFL camps who got off the board a little bit and we want to have another chance to see him again. “You never know why a guy is not playing football, but you want to give him every chance to show that he can play and provide him with the right opportunity.”

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Jonathan Clink Reporter
Jonathan Clink joined CFL News Hub in early April of 2023. His primary responsibilities are covering the BC Lions and Montreal Alouettes. He self awarded himself the CFL Rookie Journalist of the Year in 2023 following the 2023 CFL season. He also proclaims himself to be a "really cool guy". He was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba and lived a large portion of his childhood in Northwest Ontario. He currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan and misses being being able to have 4 months of skating every winter. Clink has written over 240 articles for CFL News Hub. He was the publication's boots on the ground at the 2023 Grey Cup in Hamilton. Clink has always had an obsession for sport and has a background in other sports as well having played hockey all his life and soccer, basketball, and lacrosse in high school. As a young child he used to log his hockey statistics after every game which is either an indication that he was destined for the role or perhaps and indication that he is rather strange.
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