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New Elks quarterback Bethel-Thompson looking to mentor Ford

McLeod Bethel-Thompson Toronto Argonauts McLeod Bethel-Thompson - The Canadian Press

McLeod Bethel-Thompson is returning to Canada to lead the Edmonton Elks to their first Grey Cup title since 2015 and mentor his potential replacement.

Bethel-Thompson signed a one-year deal with Edmonton on Sunday. He spent the '23 season in the fledgling United States Football League to be closer to his wife and young daughter.

Financial details weren't divulged but Bethel-Thompson could reportedly earn as much as $500,000, with incentives.

Bethel-Thompson was part of two Grey Cup-winning teams during five seasons with the Toronto Argonauts (2017, '22). Edmonton (4-14) finished last in the West Division and hasn't been to the CFL playoffs since 2019.

But Bethel-Thompson said Monday he's not content with merely making the playoffs.

"That (Grey Cup) is our focus," Bethel-Thompson said via Zoom following an on-field workout at UCLA. "That's one of the beautiful things about the CFL game is teams have often gone from not very good records to very good records to contenders."

Americans Taylor Cornelius and Jarret Doege, along with Canadian Tre Ford, all saw action at quarterback last season for Edmonton. Ford, the '21 Hec Crighton Trophy winner as Canadian university football's top player, led the Elks to all four of their regular-season victories despite opening the year behind Cornelius and Doege.

Ford, a 25-year-old native of Niagara Falls, Ont., who played collegiately at Waterloo, showed tremendous promise. The six-foot-one, 185-pound quarterback, who Edmonton took in the first round, eighth overall, in the '22 CFL draft, completed 153-of-227 passes (67.4 per cent) with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions while rushing 66 times for 622 yards (9.4-yard average) and three touchdowns.

Ford will enter the final year of his rookie deal in 2024.

"I'm very excited to work with Tre," Bethel-Thompson said. "Obviously he was expecting to play this year and he will play in this league for a long, long time.

"I want to cultivate that relationship very purposely and give him everything I possibly can. I'm very excited to turn him into an even better player than he already is and give him that structure he hasn't had yet. I've made 1,000 mistakes and maybe he can skip some steps and get ahead of the game. He's going to be a great player in this league for a long time."

Chris Jones, Edmonton's head coach/GM, said Monday that Ford remains very much in the franchise's plan.

"We thought enough of him to draft him," Jones said. "He's got tremendous talent, we still have (a lot) of confidence he's going to develop.

"We signed (Bethel-Thompson) for the reason to come and be our starter. We're going to continue to work with Tre because it's a situation where when he develops, he's going to have a long, bright future in front of him."

But Jones never consulted Ford during the process to sign Bethel-Thompson.

"I don’t coddle these guys," he said. "We make the decisions based off what we feel like makes our football team better.

“(Ford) is a big part of what we have moving forward . . . but to say we involved him in the process, that wouldn’t be accurate."

Bethel-Thompson's arrival in Edmonton could be good news for Gino Lewis. The speedy receiver was the East Division's outstanding player in '22 with Montreal (91 catches, 1,303 yards, 10 TDs in 17 games) but saw his production drop drastically last year, his first with the Elks (48 catches, 844 yards, three TDs in 12 contests).

Bethel-Thompson said a number of CFL teams expressed interest in him but the chance to play with Lewis figured in his decision to sign with Edmonton.

"When you have players like Gino Lewis and the talented receiving corps, it's an exciting place to go chase a ring," he said.

Bethel-Thompson spent last season with the USFL's New Orleans Breakers. The 35-year-old San Francisco native completed 220-of-336 passes (65.5 per cent) for a league-best 2,433 passing yards with 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 10 games.

The six-foot-four, 220-pound Bethel-Thompson threw for a CFL- and career-high 4,731 yards in 2022 with 23 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He led Toronto (11-7) to first place in the East Division for a second straight season before completing 19-of-27 passes for 299 yards and two TDs in the Argos’ 34-27 conference final victory over the Montreal Alouettes.

Bethel-Thompson feels Grey Cup experience is especially valuable with such a young Edmonton roster.

"You understand the marathon that it is to win a CFL Grey Cup," he said. "Having (the) experience of being on two Grey Cup championship teams _ and two very different experiences and seasons _ you know the ingredients that it takes to build that recipe.

"(You know) the blood, sweat and tears you need to pour into that soup and it needs to work for months and months at a time before it can come to fruition and you can call yourself champions."

Bethel-Thompson began his CFL career with Winnipeg in 2016, spending time on the practice roster before being released and joining the Argos. He appeared in 74 career regular-season games (starting 46), completing 1,125-of-1,683 passes (66.8%) for 13,261 yards with 70 touchdowns, and 49 interceptions.

Bethel-Thompson has also run 93 times for 513 yards (5.5-yard average) and two TDs.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 8, 2024.