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Hamilton Tiger-Cats wide receiver Chris Williams runs the ball past Toronto Argonauts defender Jeff Johnson (L) during the second half of their CFL game in Hamilton September 3, 2012. (MIKE CASSESE/REUTERS)
Hamilton Tiger-Cats wide receiver Chris Williams runs the ball past Toronto Argonauts defender Jeff Johnson (L) during the second half of their CFL game in Hamilton September 3, 2012. (MIKE CASSESE/REUTERS)

CFL

The top five stories from the halfway point of the CFL season Add to ...

It’s the midway point of the 2012 CFL season and new stars are rising, a head coach has been fired and the Saskatchewan Roughriders are in the thick of the East Division playoff race.

Here are five story lines that explain how the league got here and where it’s going:

The Return of the Return Man

Not long ago, insiders and outsiders alike were bemoaning the loss of the return game, one of the CFL’s most dynamic elements.

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This year, it’s been non-stop action – Saskatchewan’s Tristan Jackson returning a missed field goal 129 yards; Chris Williams of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats returning five punts and a missed field goal for touchdowns in only nine games, a record-setting feat.

Why is this happening?

B.C. Lions general manager Wally Buono noted a series of factors: Punters having to kick the ball in bounds; more opportunities for returners; teams employing a return specialist as one of its three designated imports.

“We’ve also seen more teams trying longer field goals,” he said. “That means 300-pound guys have to cover a missed kick. That’s a recipe for disaster.”

What’s clear is the majority of CFL teams now boast a dangerous return man, from Demonte Washington (Winnipeg Blue Bombers) to Chad Owens (Toronto Argonauts). And the best of them are sprinting up the league’s list of all-time return men.

“It’s about the quality of the returners,” Buono said. “They’re just that good.”

The Eloquent Runner

Jon Cornish is more than the Calgary Stampeders’ premier back and quite possibly the first Canadian to lead the league in rushing in 24 years. He is the most interesting man in the CFL.

Pick a subject – politics, video games, the play of his offensive line – and the New Westminster-born Cornish has an intriguing take.

He’s just as good on Twitter: “Biology never disappoints: myrmecochory is when plants evolve elaiosomes on their seeds which attract ants who then disperse the seeds.”

Cornish plans to attend medical school one day. Until then, he’s slicing into defences with power and precision.

Since becoming the Stamps’ No. 1 back on Sept. 25, 2011, Cornish has rushed for 1,254 yards and 11 touchdowns, and there’s no sign of slowing down.

Winnipeg woes

If all had gone well, the Blue Bombers would have been playing in their new stadium with Buck Pierce at quarterback and Paul LaPolice as head coach.

Instead, it’s been no stadium, no Pierce, LaPolice fired and a plummet that has seen Winnipeg drop from 2011 East Division champions and Grey Cup finalists to the worst team in the CFL.

The other day, GM Joe Mack suggested the team was still suffering from the loss of assistant coach Richard Harris, who died last summer of a heart attack. While it’s hard to determine a team’s “psyche,” the Blue Bombers do miss Harris’s ability to command the players’ attention and get them working together.

Things are likely to get worse in Winnipeg before they get better.

Burris not so bad, actually

Quarterback Henry Burris was supposed to do for the Ticats what he did for the Stamps – give them a chance to win. Hamilton’s 3-6 record is proof he hasn’t delivered.

The funny thing is Burris has come through on just about everything else. The Ticats have the highest-scoring offence in the CFL. Burris is leading the league in touchdown tosses while his passing yards and interception totals are virtually identical to a year ago with Calgary.

What’s needed in Hamilton is a defence that can pressure the quarterback and create turnovers. If the Ticats get that, they have a good enough quarterback to keep Saskatchewan from crossing over into the East playoffs.

Sure-thing Sherritt

The single-season tackle record set by Calvin Tiggle (129 in 1994, for the Argos) is within J.C. Sherritt’s range, which means it’s as good as broken so long as the Edmonton Eskimos linebacker (78 tackles before Friday’s game) stays healthy.

Much has already been written about Sherritt’s play. Here’s what hasn’t been written: what J.C. stands for.

Sherritt won’t say because his older sisters used to call him by his full name when they were mad at him. Who needs that?

All-time CFL kick returners (punts, kickoffs, missed field goals combined)

1. Henry (Gizmo) Williams, Edmonton, 1,397 returns, 20,227 yards, 31 TDs

2. Micheal (Pinball) Clemons, Toronto, 942 returns, 13,082 yards, 8 TDs

3. Marvin Coleman, Calgary, 780 returns, 11,545 yards, 7 TDs

4. Jason Armstead, last with Edmonton, 741 returns, 10,279 yards, 6 TDs

5. Winston October, Montreal 656 returns, 9,511 yards, 7 TDs

Active players chasing the leaders

13. Chad Owens, Toronto, 372 returns, 6,848 yards, 6 TDs

14. Larry Taylor, Calgary, 419 returns, 6,555 yards, 6 TDs

21. Tristan Jackson, Saskatchewan, 407 yards, 6,001 yards, 5 TDs

Chris Williams, Hamilton, 66 returns, 1,267 yards, 7 TDs

Information provided by CFL chief statistician Steve Daniel

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