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Returner Leake looking to help Edmonton Elks reverse their fortunes in 2024

It certainly would be fitting if Javon Leake broke the CFL single-season record for punt-return touchdowns in 2024.

The CFL's top special-teams player last season signed a one-year deal with the Edmonton Elks as a free agent. Leake registered a league-best four punt-return scores in 2023, one off the record set in 1991 by former Edmonton standout Henry (Gizmo) Williams and tied in 2012 by Hamilton's Chris Williams.

"Come on, it doesn't sound any better than that," Leake said during a telephone interview. "To do it in an Edmonton jersey where (Williams) played, that would be perfect.

"I feel like I missed a couple of returns last year. I just have to get better, learn my new team, develop chemistry with them and I feel I can do some special things."

Leake, 25, is definitely aware of Williams' place in CFL history. The Hall of Famer was a special-teams dynamo over his 14 seasons in Edmonton (1986-88, 1990-2000) and still holds many league records, including all-time punt returns (1,003), yards (11,257), TDs (26), all-time kickoff returns (335) and yards (7,354).

Williams also returned three kickoffs and two missed field goals for touchdowns and had 21 TD grabs as a receiver. After scoring, Williams often celebrate by doing backflips in the end zone.

"Excitement," Leake said. "When I hear, 'Gizmo,' I hear people in a stadium yelling and an announcer after a touchdown screaming 'Gizmo.'"

The six-foot, 205-pound Leake generated his own excitement last season with the Toronto Argonauts. Leake led the league in punt returns (81 for 1,216 yards, 15-yard average) and the four return TDs were a club record.

Leake broke Toronto's record in dramatic fashion. His 86-yard, fourth-quarter punt return broke a 31-31 tie and led the Argos past Calgary 39-31 at BMO Field on Aug. 25.

Over Toronto's remaining nine regular-season contests, Leake came close to joining the Williams but could not reach the end zone for a fifth time.

"That fifth one was hard to get, I'm not going to lie," Leake said with a chuckle. "All I'm working on this off-season is picking up my knees.

"I did think about it (record-tying return) and my teammates were always talking about it so it was definitely in the air every game."

Leake joins an Edmonton squad looking to return to the CFL playoffs for the first time since 2019. The Elks have compiled an 11-39 overall record since losing to Hamilton in the East Division final.

But Edmonton has been active this off-season, signing quarterback McLeod-Bethel Thompson and veteran kicker Boris Bede while acquiring Canadian receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr. Like Leake, all are former Argos who helped the team win the 2022 Grey Cup.

"Just having that leadership to bring to the locker room, I feel, is going to be helpful," Leake said. "With the guys that have been added, along with the team they already have, I feel like there will definitely be a turnaround this year."

Leake was very open to remaining with Toronto. However, Edmonton pursued him heavily during the free-agent process and Leake has a connection with Geroy Simon, the Elks assistant GM, as both played collegiately at Maryland.

"There was plenty of interest in Javon in free agency," said Kenny Kim of Summit Athletes, Leake's Florida-based agent. "Every time he gets the ball he can change the course of a game because he's such a dynamic playmaker, which is something teams are always looking for.

"He's by far the league's top special-teams performer and I'd expect nothing less this season."

Leake also expects to see time this season in Edmonton's backfield. While Kevin Brown (1,141 yards) remains the starter, Leake is looking forward to getting some reps on offence.

In 2019 as a junior at Maryland, Leake ran for 736 yards (7.22-yard average) and eight TDs. He also led the Big Ten (third in NCAA) in kickoff returns (804 yards, 30 returns, two TDs) en route to being named a conference all-star as a returner and winning the Rogers-Dwight returner of the year award.

During his two seasons in Toronto, Leake had just 15 carries for 52 yards.

"KB is the guy but I could work in and get a few touches," Leake said. "Nothing crazy but you'll definitely see me in the backfield."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 22, 2024.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press