In 2022, Jaelon Acklin had a breakout season with the Ottawa REDBLACKS, setting career highs for receiving yards, yards per game, receptions, targets, and yards after the catch. Finishing with over 1,100 yards, he made a name for himself as one of the premiere pass-catchers in the Canadian Football League.
That was possible for a handful of reasons. A magical early-season connection with Jeremiah Masoli, a complete disregard for his own safety when it came to plucking a pass out of the air with big hits coming, and most importantly, his do-whatever-it-takes mindset.
So far in 2023, however, the water has been choppier. In eight games, Acklin has 321 receiving yards on 26 receptions, and is yet to find the endzone. He says that has been a contributing factor to why the REDBLACKS’ offence as a whole has struggled and isn’t shying away from the responsibility he shares to figure things out.
“There have been some plays we have left out there on the field, especially myself,” Acklin admitted. “We haven’t been playing up to our capability. We have shown flashes of it in practice, but we have to be more consistent and worry about ourselves. It doesn’t matter what anyone else does, we have to play better.”
“I haven’t played very well, that’s all me, that’s no one else’s fault. That’s how I can really help. If I play better, the team will be better, so it starts with me. I have to expect more out of myself.”
The lack of touches, yards, and touchdowns isn’t what concerns Acklin, he says. He came to Ottawa to win rings, not collect stats, and he’d be perfectly happy to never see another pass thrown his way if it meant he could call himself a Grey Cup champion.
“The team is sitting in a better spot this year compared to last year when I had more yards, and I’d rather be in the situation we’re in right now as a team,” Acklin said. “Sometimes I’m not going to have the numbers I want, but we can win games when that happens. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win.”
The unselfish attitude is great, but here’s a little secret: the REDBLACKS are a better football team when they get the Western Illinois alum going.
It’s not as simple as pointing at the number of receptions and telling the quarterback – whoever it may be – to throw the ball to number 23, and you can bet your bottom dollar that the gameplan hasn’t been to ignore Acklin on offence.
All year long, there has been a concerted effort to get the ball in his hands, but it hasn’t always worked out as desired. Still, the coaching staff presses forward, looking to find creative methods to give the dynamic playmaker the rock in space.
“There’s always an effort, he’s one of our guys,” said Receiver’s Coach Travis Moore. “We always have plays set up for him, but sometimes, it just doesn’t happen that way. The main thing for him is staying on the course, and things will eventually happen.”
A contributing factor, to be sure, has been the revolving door of quarterbacks under centre this season. Obviously, it hasn’t been by design, but everyone has had to take time to build relationships with four different pivots, all of whom have different skill sets.
Think of some of the most famous quarterback-to-receiver connections in the history of football. Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, and right here in Ottawa, Henry Burris finding Brad Sinopoli. It takes time to create those bonds, but that is an element the REDBLACKS simply haven’t had.
Regardless, Acklin believes he’s well on his way to a special relationship with Dustin Crum, and is looking to kick things into high gear to make some magic.
“They’re all really good guys, and they show up to work ready every single day,” Acklin said of the quarterback group. “As an offence, we just have to block out the outside noise. We can’t be using the crutch of saying it’s our fourth-string quarterback, we shouldn’t be doing that well anyway, we can’t think like that. We have to win games, and we have a good enough team to do that.”
While Acklin has waited for his time to shine, he has seen teammates like Nate Behar and Justin Hardy soak up the credit. All the while, he has kept ready, knowing that sooner or later, he’s going to be asked to make a series of big plays. When that happens, Moore knows that the self-described baller will be ready to meet the task.
“He has done everything we have asked him to do,” Moore said. “When the ball has come his way, he has made the play, so he just needs to keep doing what he has been doing. The numbers are going to come.”