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TORONTO — These are not your 2023 Edmonton Elks.
An off-season of change in Edmonton has given the Green and Gold a different feel heading into 2024. The Elks have signed quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, and traded for wide receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr., a successful duo that helped the Toronto Argonauts win the Grey Cup in 2022.
The two moves come around a month before the free agency period opens and change the face of a team that finished at the bottom of the West Division over the last two seasons.
Head coach and general manager Chris Jones didn’t shy away from taking ownership for the challenging stretch his team has gone through.
“First of all, I’ve got to do a better job coaching them,” said Jones in an appearance on The Waggle with Donovan Bennett and Henoc Muamba. “We have to play more consistent football and that starts with me.”
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A young Elks team showed flashes of their potential last season, but ultimately were unable to overcome an 0-9 start. Led by National quarterback Tre Ford, Edmonton finished 4-5 over the last nine games behind a rushing offence that led the league in yards per attempt (6.1).
Jones is hoping that with more experience under their belt the team can make the jump next year despite a tough self-assessment when it comes to 2023.
“As far as the grade, when you’re 4-14 you can only get one grade,” said the head coach. “You’re supposed to win every ball game. You have to play better and more consistent football. There’s only one grade that you could give us from last year and that’s an ‘F’.
“We have some really good young players, some good young people in our room. I like our locker room, we had 16 or 17 rookies, another 16 or 17 second year guys. I’m hoping the natural maturation process takes place.”
The young core will get a boost from veteran Bethel-Thompson, who has plenty of experience under his belt. The pivot has appeared in 74 games in the CFL, all with the Argonauts, and thrown for 13,261 passing yards to go along 70 touchdowns and 49 interceptions.
His time with the Double Blue included two East Division first-place finishes (2021-2022) and a championship with a win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the 109th Grey Cup. His job now is to lead the Elks back to post-season contention while also helping with the development of Ford.
“Everybody knows what (Bethel-Thompson) can do,” said Jones. “He’s the consummate professional. He knows where to go with the football, can get the ball out of his hands.”
“(Ford’s) future is so bright. He’s a guy that is probably the most dynamic quarterback as far as athletically in the league, if not in all of football. He’s a dynamic athlete and now it’s just a matter of him growing into that position. He can do some things that a lot of people can’t do.”
Jones is excited about the prospects of his two pivots being in the same quarterback room.
“(Ford) being around (Bethel-Thompson) is going to be really good for one another.”
There are a lot of moves to be made in the off-season for all teams, but the Elks got a head start on trying to build a new identity. Now it’s a matter of putting all the pieces together and combining the experience of guys like Bethel-Thompson and Gittens Jr. with a more mature roster.
“We certainly hope that we’re taking the next step. We have a lot of stuff to do. Have got to have a good draft but looking forward to getting this thing started.”