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Receiver Lewis optimistic about Elks' 2024 fortunes

Eugene Lewis Eugene Lewis - The Canadian Press

Receiver Eugene Lewis can't wait to start earning quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson's trust.

The signing of Bethel-Thompson, a two-time Grey Cup champion, was Edmonton's biggest off-season move. The Elks have finished last in the West Division three consecutive years.

CFL training camps open next month.

"I know what a great quarterback can do," Lewis said. "Somebody with experience, somebody who's been through it and won championships and MBT has done that.

"To have another guy like that, another leader, another veteran, I think it's awesome."

Edmonton last made the playoffs in 2019 but has won a combined 11 regular-season games since then.

Elks head coach/GM Chris Jones also acquired Canadian receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr. from Toronto. Gittens Jr. had 81 catches for 1,101 yards and five TDs in 2022 but played in just 10 games last year due to injury.

American defensive lineman Jake Ceresna (22 sacks the last two seasons) went to Toronto in the deal.

Edmonton also signed kicker Boris Bede (released by Toronto) and kick-returner Javon Leake (free agent, Argos). Leake was the CFL's top special-teams player last season.

Defensive backs Aaron Grymes and Ed Gainey, receiver Steven Dunbar, quarterback Taylor Cornelius and Canadian linebacker Adam Konar were among the veterans Edmonton released.

The six-foot-four, 220-pound Bethel-Thompson spent 2023 with the USFL's New Orleans Breakers. He threw for a league/career-high 4,731 yards in 2022 with 23 TDs and 15 interceptions as Toronto (11-7) finished atop the East Division.

After leading Toronto past Montreal in the East final, Bethel-Thompson started the Grey Cup versus Winnipeg. But he gave way to Chad Kelly in the fourth quarter after suffering a dislocated right thumb.

Kelly completed four-of-six passes for 43 yards but it was his 20-yard run on second-and-15 that set up A.J. Ouellette's five-yard TD run that put Toronto ahead 24-23. Canadian defensive lineman Robbie Smith clinched the one-point win, blocking Marc Liegghio's 47-yard field goal try with 54 seconds remaining.

Bethel-Thompson started 47-of-74 career regular-season games with Toronto (2017-19, 2021-22). He completed 66.8 per cent of his passes for 13,261 yards with 70 TDs and 49 interceptions.

Lewis gives Bethel-Thompson a big-play receiver. The six-foot-one, 208-pound Lewis was the East Division's top player in 2022 with Montreal, registering 91 catches for 1,303 yards and 10 TDs (all career highs).

Lewis had 48 receptions for 844 yards and three TDs in 12 games last season, his first with Edmonton.

"I love making big plays, I love it when a quarterback is ready to let it loose," Lewis said. "It's also that trust factor where the quarterback says, 'I trust that my guys are down there and will make the play better than the guy who's defending them.'

"I'm excited to make it easier for MBT so he doesn't always have to throw it perfectly. Just put it into an area for us and know we're going to go up and make a play."

Bethel-Thompson's arrival isn't good news for Canadian quarterback Tre Ford. The Niagara Falls, Ont., native led Edmonton to all four of its regular-season wins after starting 2023 behind Americans Cornelius and Jarret Doege.

Bethel-Thompson has expressed wanting to mentor the six-foot-one, 185-pound Ford, who captured the 2021 Hec Crighton Trophy at Waterloo as Canadian university football's top player. Edmonton drafted Ford eighth overall in 2022.

Lewis was with Montreal in 2021 when it acquired veteran Trevor Harris from Edmonton with starter Vernon Adams Jr. (shoulder) sidelined. Adams opened 2022 as the starter before ultimately being dealt to B.C. but Lewis felt Adams benefited from Harris's presence.

"You could see VA take a whole other step seeing the game the way Trevor was breaking it down," Lewis said. "I can see the same thing happening for Tre because he's the future of this league.

"I'm really excited for him to get that wisdom and advice from a guy like MBT."

Predictably, Lewis is optimistic about Edmonton's fortunes in 2024.

"I think even around the league, teams realize we're not going to be that 4-14 (club) we were these last couple of years," he said. "They know they're going to have to come beat us."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2024.