May 13, 2024

O’Leary: What can 2024 hold for Tre Ford?

Daniel Crump/

The most intriguing player in the CFL sat in a vast ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel in Hamilton last month, wearing a loose-fitting Edmonton Elks sweatsuit.

Tre Ford making up one of the two people in this almost cavernous space felt appropriate. Arguably the most creative and fastest-thinking-on-his-feet quarterback in the league, Ford likely won’t dance this season with the Elks; at least not as much as he wants to, even if the floor is right in front of him to take to.

The 26-year-old former Hec Crighton winner at Waterloo went into the Elks’ training camp this week as the No. 2 pivot on the depth chart after general manager and head coach Chris Jones signed McLeod Bethel-Thompson in the off-season. Ford was one of the few bright spots in the Elks’ dark cloud-laden 2023 campaign. In his second season after going eighth overall in the 2022 CFL Draft, Ford got onto the field after the team fell into a 0-8 hole that extended the team’s home losing streak to 22 games, in a stretch that went back to the 2019 season.

Ford went 4-6 as the starter, but manufactured an elite highlight reel package in the process, showing that craftiness on his feet and an ability to still keep his eyes downfield at all times. In those four wins he ended the team’s home-losing skid, put a pair of winning streaks together and may have briefly put some fear into the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Calgary Stampeders as they battled for the final playoff spot in the West Division.

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Ford is an electric player, one who may be able to do things that no other QB in the CFL can. He goes into the 2024 season quite literally as lightning in a bottle, the lid sealed, much to the chagrin first of all to a chunk of the Elks’ fan base, then with TSN’s Dustin Nielson likely a close second. For now, we wait to see what’s next.

The waiting game 

“I mean, I wouldn’t really say it’s my favourite thing in the world,” Ford said with a laugh, asked about the difficulty of being patient as a young quarterback.

“Obviously, if you ask any player in the league I would hope they say they want to play. My goal is to definitely play. I’m going to learn as much as I can from (Bethel-Thompson) but at the end of the day, I’m also trying to beat him out and I think he knows that because he’s also a competitor.”

Ford learned about Bethel-Thompson’s January signing with the Elks the same way that the rest of us did, over social media. Quickly after the news, he spoke with the Elks and perhaps most important, has had off-season conversations with Bethel-Thompson since. A five-year CFL vet and two-time Grey Cup winner with the Toronto Argonauts, Bethel-Thompson will be the first experienced veteran that Ford will have in a CFL QB room with him.

When he got on the field last year, Ford was electric and helped put some darker days for the franchise in the past (Kevin Sousa/

“I believe that if you don’t think you’re the best quarterback for your team, then you’re probably not,” Ford said. “So I’m always going to think I’m the best quarterback for my team, whether he’s there or not. But I’m going to definitely try to soak up all knowledge possible from him because he’s played in the NFL, CFL for a while, the USFL. He’s been all over the place, so he’s definitely be a good guy to learn from.

“Two years ago he was the leading passer in the CFL. He was the leading passer in the USFL last year. He knows what he’s doing.”

If Ford needs to draw on other quarterbacks who have had to wait their turn to get fully into the spotlight in the CFL, he doesn’t have to look far. In Edmonton, Warren Moon did it, as did Matt Dunigan, Damon Allen and Tracy Ham. Michael Reilly played behind Travis Lulay before coming to Edmonton for his starting opportunity in 2013. Vernon Adams Jr., Zach Collaros, Trevor Harris, Cody Fajardo and Jeremiah Masoli all became longtime starting QBs in the CFL after having their patience tested for years before getting their opportunities.

“I’m excited to learn from him,” Ford said of Bethel-Thompson. “I think he’s a good quarterback and I think there’s a lot to learn from him so I’m going to try to take advantage of that, for sure.”

An x-factor this season?

Jones and the Elks organization have made it clear that the plan will be for Bethel-Thompson to lead the offence this year. The 35-year-old was brought in to a franchise that last had a postseason appearance in 2019 and is hungry for a quick turnaround on a 4-14 2023 finish and just an 11-39 record in the last three years.

The 2024 season will likely take a number of unforeseen twists and turns in the coming weeks and months. As much as Ford will still factor into the Elks’ plans, rival teams can be an injury or bad play away from being in desperate need of a quarterback. We saw it with Adams in 2022, when the BC Lions traded for him after Nathan Rourke went down with a foot injury.

This is what helps make Ford the league’s most intriguing figure this year. His pro resume isn’t that long, but it’s powerful and laced with potential. The Elks have never expressed interest in making that deal, but Ford could yield a tremendous return in a trade should a team suddenly be in position to make a move.

Former Edmonton receiver Shamawd Chambers has seen Tre and his brother Tyrell in off-season workouts over the last two years with his Out The Chamber Sports group. Chambers said he saw more of Tre in 2022 than this past year, but knows how much potential is there for the Elks.

“If I were them, I wouldn’t want to move on him because he’s very young. He’s a great kid, first of all and they should figure out how to get him on the field,” he said, adding that having two starter-quality quarterbacks goes a long way for any Grey Cup-contending team.

“Let’s not rush the the cook, man. It’s very important for him to get proper development because the U SPORTS game and the CFL game are different. They need to invest in his development and I think that’s an important thing. They drafted him in the first round. It’s been two years. He’s giving you fantastic plays, he’s a playmaker. But now let’s invest in his development.”

The Bethel-Thompson factor

AJ Ouellette is now a full year and a new team removed from Bethel-Thompson, but he still raves about his former quarterback.

At the CFL content capture in Hamilton, Ouellette was asked a question that just about every player who participated was asked. If you were starting a CFL franchise today, who is the first person you’d take? The star running back’s first instinct was Bethel-Thompson.

“They did a great job grabbing him in Edmonton,” Ouellette said. The two played together from 2019-2022 and of course won the 109th Grey Cup together in that final year.

“My experience with him, he kind of helped develop me into a pro. I got to spend some time in the locker room with him. His approach and his way to break down how to talk to teammates. He knows how to talk to every individual person in a different unique way. That’s important in the locker room.”

Ouellette sees a golden opportunity for Ford in Edmonton.

Bethel-Thompson and Ford could grow to be one of the league’s top quarterbacking duos this year (

“The way I would tell him to approach it (is to) compete your ass off to take that starting position but ask the questions. Mac’s not going to hold back, he’s going to try to spill everything in his head out and let you understand how he knows the game.

“So ask the questions and just kind of watch him on the field, but also in the locker room. Watch how he includes everybody and makes everybody feel a part of the team, like 100 per cent. I think it’ll be huge for him.”

In the days after he’d signed with the Elks, Bethel-Thompson told reporters on a conference call of how he wanted to help Ford and mentor him. He said the 2023 experience Ford gained as a starter was hugely beneficial to him in his development.

“He will play in this league for a long, long time. I want to cultivate that relationship very purposefully and I want to give him everything I possibly can. You see the magic, you see what he can do off-script,” Bethel-Thompson said. “It’s about me helping him build a script on a play-to-play basis. Then when things do break down he can do the magic and do his off-script stuff at a high, high level.”

There will very likely be a season-long campaign from Elks fans and CFL fans across the country to make the Canadian quarterback the starter. A quick look at the comments section of any QB-related Elks post tells you that much already. But if Ford can remain patient, there is a great opportunity for him to learn those on and off the field intangibles from a vet that sets a unique and powerful example.

On the field, the duo could help to get the Elks back up the standings and into the playoffs for the first time this decade.

“I made 1,000 mistakes, maybe half of those he doesn’t have to make,” Bethel-Thompson said on that January call, talking about Ford. “And he can skip some steps and get ahead of the game because he’s going to be a great player in this league for a long time.”

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