Chris Williams has emphatically quashed any talk this year of a sophomore jinx.
The diminutive receiver made such an impact with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats last year that he was named the CFL’s top rookie. The five-foot-nine, 155-pound Williams hasn’t skipped a beat in 2012, having already tied the league record for most kick-return TDs in a campaign while also challenging the single-season mark for most touchdowns.
“I didn’t necessarily want to prove I wasn’t a one-year wonder, I just wanted to get better,” Williams said. “I know it’s a cliche but that’s what it really is.
“If you get better and work hard each and every day it will all start becoming second nature and easier to play the game. I wouldn’t say it’s becoming easier, I’m just learning more about it. I’m able to make adjustments a little faster than I would normally. I’m just getting smarter and trying to figure out ways to attack. The game is always changing, it’s evolving day to day.”
Williams will be a marked man Monday when the Ticats (3-5) host the Toronto Argonauts (4-4) in the final Labour Day game ever at Ivor Wynne Stadium. He definitely left his mark on the Argos in a 36-27 home win July 14 with three TDs — returning a missed field goal 119 yards and a punt 89 yards while adding a 34-yard touchdown catch.
“He is special right now,” Argos head coach Scott Milanovich said. “He’s obviously a weapon on offence but what he’s doing on special teams now returning punts and field goals, he’s one of those guys who’s really feeling it.
“We’re aware of it and have to do a great job on him.”
Williams, 24, has taken the long road to CFL stardom.
Following his college career at New Mexico State he was bypassed in the NFL draft. He spent time with the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns but was cut by both clubs.
Williams signed with Hamilton in 2010 but spent that season on the practice roster before getting his chance to play in 2011. Williams took full advantage with 70 catches for 1,064 yards and six TDs while also returning 12 kickoffs for 252 yards and a TD and 12 punts for 81 yards en route to being named the CFL’s top rookie.
Williams has been even more dynamic this year.
He’s third among CFL receivers with 41 catches for 652 yards and five TDs. He leads the league in punt returns — 33 for 527 yards (16-yard average) — and taken four back for touchdowns. He would own the single-season return TD record already if not for a mental gaffe in Hamilton’s 39-24 road win over Montreal on July 21.
Williams returned a missed field goal try 117 yards for a seemingly certain TD that game when he started his touchdown celebration too early and was caught from behind at the one-yard line.
The showboating was totally out of character for usually reserved and humble Williams.
“When he walks into the locker-room you’re like, ‘Who the heck is this kid coming into the locker-room?’ Ticats quarterback Henry Burris said. ”The thing is he’s such a humble guy regardless of whether he’s had a two-touchdown return game or three touchdown receptions
“He’s always the same even-keel type of guy. The sky is the limit for him. It’s going to be scary to see once he caps out his potential and the level he’s going to be at.”
That’s a scary prospect given where Williams is currently at.
He’s threatening former Edmonton star Larry Highbaugh’s single-season punt return average of 16.8 yards as well as retired star Milt Stegall’s mark of 23 TDs registered in 2002.
“Records are made to be broken,” Williams said. “That’s the way the game has always been and will continue to be.
“I’m just playing. I enjoy it, I have fun, the guys are great and we’re constantly working and trying to get more wins.”
Monday’s game marks the start of a important home-and-home series between arch rivals both not only looking to create separation in the East Division standings but also keep within striking distance of front-running Montreal (6-3). Hamilton quarterback Henry Burris and Toronto’s Ricky Ray are poised to renew their Labour Day rivalry after years of doing so with Calgary and Edmonton previously, but this will mark their first — and last — such appearance at Ivor Wynne, which is slated for demolition at season’s end.
“A lot more is riding on this outside of the obvious,” Burris said. “It’s the last Labour Day game at Ivor Wynne, it’s definitely a very important game not only for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on the field but also the fans in the stands, the tradition of the Hamilton organization and the city of Hamilton.
“Toronto is a game up on us and definitely we need to make our move right now.”
It’s also the first Toronto-Hamilton Labour Day showdown for Ticats coach George Cortez, but he learned firsthand all about the importance of rivalries in the CFL after helping Calgary win the ‘92 Grey Cup as an assistant coach. In the off-season, Cortez spoke to a group of Second World War veterans and figured he had earned a measure of their respect after telling them that his father had also served overseas.
“So we got to the end and we started taking questions,” Cortez said. “One gentleman got up and said, ‘Coach, I just want to congratulate you guys for having a great season and winning the Grey Cup but you lost to Edmonton on Labour Day,’ and he was right.
“I think that’s a sign of how important rivalries are to the fans and how important they should be to the players and coaches. I’ve always remembered that.”
Milanovich, too, will experience the Toronto-Hamilton Labour Day rivalry for the first time Monday and like Cortez has fond memories of the competitiveness between Calgary and Edmonton in September 2003 while serving as the Stampeders’ quarterback coach. But for the last five years as an assistant with Montreal, Labour Day meant facing the B.C. Lions, who were hardly a traditional rival.
Overall, though, Milanovich admitted he never really concerned himself with the rivalries that existed between teams he wasn’t associated with.
“We don’t pay too much attention, other than the wins and losses, to what anybody else is going through in the league,” he said. “You kind of have an idea but you’re so zoned in during the season to what you’re doing and what your team is dealing with that you really don’t care a whole heck of a lot about what anybody else is doing and that’s the truth.
“I understand it’s a big game and I’m looking forward to it . . . that’s why guys like to play and why you like to coach: You do it for games like this where it’s important and people care about it and it’s on a big stage.”
NOTES — Receivers Ken-Yon Rambo and Maurice Mann were both added to Toronto’s 46-man roster. Rambo, a longtime Calgary Stampeder, has sufficiently recovered from an Achilles tendon injury while Mann will see his first action since requiring some 30 stitches to close a nasty leg cut during training camp . . . Tailback Chevon Walker returns to Hamilton’s lineup after missing last week’s 31-29 loss to Montreal with a lower body injury.