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Hamilton Tiger-Cats' Chris Williams (C) carries the ball 117 yards on the return of a missed field goal by the Montreal Alouettes in the first half of their CFL game in Hamilton July 21, 2012. (FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS)
Hamilton Tiger-Cats' Chris Williams (C) carries the ball 117 yards on the return of a missed field goal by the Montreal Alouettes in the first half of their CFL game in Hamilton July 21, 2012. (FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS)

Plenty of surprises, disappointments at halfway point of CFL season Add to ...

Receiver Chris Williams and linebacker J.C. Sherritt are proving they’re not one-year wonders.

The finalists for the CFL’s top rookie award last year haven’t skipped a beat the first half of the 2012 campaign. Williams, the 2011 award winner with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, has already set a league record for most kick-return TDs with six and is on pace to challenge the single-season touchdown mark.

Sherritt, in his second season with the Edmonton Eskimos, has a CFL-high 78 tackles. He’s on pace to smash the league mark of 129 set in 1994 by Calvin Tiggle of the Toronto Argonauts.

The two rising stars headline the list of surprises at the halfway point of the season.

Williams actually has set two CFL records this year.

On Monday, he returned a punt 82 yards for a TD in Hamilton’s 33-30 home loss to Toronto, a league-record third straight game he has done so.

In 2011, Williams had 70 catches for 1,064 yards and six TDs. He also returned 12 kickoffs for 252 yards and a touchdown and 12 punts for 81 yards en route to be named the CFL’s top rookie.

Williams has been even more dangerous this season.

He’s third among CFL receivers with 42 catches for 704 yards with five TDs. He’s tops in punt returns — 38 for 685 yards (18-yard average) — and taken five back for touchdowns. His other score came on a missed field goal return.

And if he can maintain or improve upon his punt-return average, Williams will eclipse former Edmonton star Larry Highbaugh’s single-season punt return average of 16.8 yards. And with 11 total TDs, Williams is challenging Milt Stegall’s mark of 23 touchdowns recorded in 2002.

The five-foot-nine, 218-pound Sherritt has already surpassed last year’s production when he recorded 72 defensive tackles. While Sherritt still hasn’t registered a sack — he had three in 2011 — he has three interceptions after recording none last season.

Here’s a look at other mid-season surprises:

Grant Shaw. Was somewhat of an unknown commodity when acquired by Edmonton from Toronto in December as part of the Ricky Ray deal. But the third-year pro has hit 19-of-23 field goals (82.6 per cent) for the Eskimos, with his longest being from 50 yards.

Chad Owens. The five-foot-seven, 180-pound Hawaiian remains one of the CFL’s most dangerous kick returners. But he’s also the league’s second-leading receiver with 53 catches for 764 yards and four TDs. With 2,227 all-purpose yards, Owens is on pace to shatter Mike (Pinball) Clemons’ single-season mark of 3,840 yards.

Adam Bighill. He began the season with the unenviable task of replacing Solomon Elimimian at middle linebacker but the five-foot-10, 230-pound Bighill is the CFL’s second-leading tackler with 58 and also has two sacks. Last season a rookie Bighill led the Grey Cup-champion Lions with 22 special-teams tackles.

Brandon London. Patience is a virtue for any offensive player arriving in Montreal given the established veterans the club has. The six-foot-four, 210-pound London has 27 catches for 516 yards (19.1-yard average) and two TDs and is the Alouettes second-leading receiver. But the third-year receiver is currently out with a knee injury.

Kory Sheets. The CFL rookie has wasted little time making an impact with Saskatchewan. The five-foot-11, 206-pound sparkplug leads the league in rushing (648 yards), carries (123) and running TDs (seven) and is averaging a solid 5.3 yards per attempt. He also has 26 catches for 321 yards.

Chevon Walker. Hamilton surprised many by going with rookie Walker in the backfield ahead of established veteran Avon Cobourne. But the speedy Walker is third in CFL rushing with 543 yards (5.9-yard average) and three TDs. He also has 24 catches for 275 yards and four touchdowns.

Jabar Westerman. B.C. traded up to select Westerman second overall in this year’s CFL draft and was expected to ease the six-foot-two, 285-pound defensive lineman slowly into the lineup. But the 23-year-old native of Brampton, Ont., has contributed three sacks to a defence that has a league-leading 22.

And now, some first-half disappointments:

Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Many prognosticators predicted a slight decline this year for the defending East Division champions but nothing quite like this. The Blue Bombers are last overall with a 2-7 record and have a new head coach in Tim Burke, the former defensive co-ordinator who took over the top job after Paul LaPolice — a finalist for last year’s CFL’s coach of the year award — was fired. The club lost an embarrassing 52-0 decision in Regina on Sunday in Burke’s head-coaching debut.

Jamel Richardson. The Montreal receiver had career highs of 112 catches and 1,777 yards last season with 11 touchdown grabs. But the six-foot-three, 215-pound Richardson has struggled in 2012 with 26 catches for 391 yards and two TDs while missing two games with a hamstring injury.

Andy Fantuz. There was no hotter commodity on the CFL free-agent market this off-season than the six-foot-four, 220-pound Fantuz despite missing most of the 2011 campaign due to injury and attending the Chicago Bears training camp. In 2010, Fantuz was the league’s top Canadian with 87 catches for 1,380 yards and six TDs with Saskatchewan. But in his first season with Hamilton, the native of Chatham, Ont., is 14th among CFL receivers with 33 catches for 463 yards and two TDs.

Geroy Simon. He became the CFL’s all-time receiving yards leader early this season but the B.C. Lions veteran slotback has 35 catches for 467 yards and no TDs. The 36-year-old, who is nursing a hamstring injury, has recorded nine straight 1,000-yard seasons but that streak would be in jeopardy at his current pace.

Darian Durant. The veteran quarterback helped Saskatchewan start the season 3-0 by protecting the football. But during the Riders’ five-game losing streak, Durant had eight interceptions and three fumbles while throwing just three TD passes. The club snapped its losing streak by downing Winnipeg on Sunday.

Buck Pierce. Injuries are a part of football but they’ve plagued the Winnipeg quarterback, who has been sidelined most of this season with foot ailment. Pierce made a career-high 16 starts last year and was a big part of the club reaching the Grey Cup. There is no questioning Pierce’s toughness but the Bombers must soon decide if they can pin their hopes on a player who is often sidelined.

Sam Giguere. The weight of expectation on the speedy slotback’s muscular shoulders when he finally signed with Hamilton was almost unfair. A 2008 CFL first-round pick, the former Sherbrooke star opted to spend time with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants before joining the Ticats. Through nine games, Giguere has just 19 catches for 252 yards and no TDs.

Greg Carr. Edmonton had big plans for the lanky receiver when it signed him as a free agent this off-season. Carr had 78 catches for 1,227 yards and eight TDs in 29 games over two seasons with Winnipeg. But Carr struggled with the Eskimos, registering just 19 catches for 214 yards and one TD before being dealt this week to Saskatchewan.

Jade Etienne. Winnipeg surprisingly took the Saskatchewan Huskies receiver fourth overall in the 2011 CFL draft. Etienne hasn’t made a CFL catch while fellow draftees Nathan Coehoorn (No. 5 to Edmonton) and Marco Iannuzzi (No. 6 to B.C.) have both contributed offensively to their pro teams.

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