Wednesday 27 July 2011

Catch a Rising Star

There are plenty of fascinating storylines in the early portion of the CFL's 2011 season: Edmonton and Winnipeg's rise back to prominence, Anthony Calvillo's continued campaign for the position of greatest QB in CFL history, Saskatchewan and BC's ineptitude. But for fans of football in the southern most city in the CFL, the story of the year, so far, has been the rise of Chris Williams

Williams has been dynamic, explosive and has contributed mightily in Hamilton's two wins so far this season. Yet the story of Chris Williams is not your standard tale.

Back in Feburary of 2010, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Saskatchewan Roughriders executed a trade that saw Receiver Prechae Rodriguez head to Saskatchewan for Receiver Adam Nicolson, a 2011 third-round draft pick and the rights to a player on Saskatchewan's negotiations list. At the time, I said that Chris Williams could be the key to the deal, thinking, at the time, that he could be the player to help Hamilton in the return game (remember, this was prior to Marcus Thigpen's arrival later that year). Never in my wildest imagination did I expect to see this from Williams, especially this soon. But despite my thinking, factors other than Williams's skills played a role in his delayed ascension.

Following the 2010 season, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats made a concerted effort to find a larger Receiver, one that could exploit the smaller Defensive Backs that a lot of teams – namely Montreal – employ. Two players shone brighter than the rest: Aaron Kelly and Bakari Grant. Kelly, who stands at 6'5", was given the first crack coming out of the preseason, but suffered an injury in the first game of the season against Winnipeg.

It was in Week 2 that Williams was given the opportunity to showcase his talents... and he blew it. Williams did not have a good game. He dropped a gimme pass that bounced off his shoulder pads and had a very costly fumble that Edmonton recovered. That type of performance in a player's first game usually means they won't get a second game. As they say, you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and Williams's first impression was atrocious. Fate, however, was on Williams's side.

Just before Hamilton's Week 3 matchup with the Saskatchewan Roughriders it was announced that Maurice Mann would be inactive due to an injury suffered earlier in the week that required stitches. The player filling in for Mann? None other than Chris Williams. Williams was given a second lease on life, and he delivered. While Williams did not have many yards, only 37, he did catch two touchdowns and helped Hamilton acquire their first win of the season.

Even with his two-TD performance, it was possible that Williams would have been the odd man out if Maurice Mann was able to recover from his injury to play in Week 4 against the BC Lions. That thought process should now be shelved indefinitely. Against the Lions, Williams had a game for the ages. He took the first pass of the game 71 yards to set up Hamilton's first touchdown of the game; his next catch was off a tipped ball, where Williams kept his concentration and scampered 32 yards to set up Hamilton's second touchdown of the game; Hamilton's third touchdown came from Williams himself. When all was said and done, Williams finished with eight catches for 189 yards and a touchdown. Any doubt that still lingered from the Edmonton game was eradicated completely with that performance.

Williams's stellar play has put the Tiger-Cats in a position where they have a plethora of talented Receivers, but only so many spots for them to play. Disregarding the Canadians, the Cats have, in addition to Williams, the aforementioned Aaron Kelly, Bakari Grant and Maurice Mann, as well as All-Star Arland Bruce III and Marquay McDaniel. You can also add Marcus Thigpen to that rotation as well, because he, for some reason, gets listed on the depth chart as a Receiver (and on the team roster as a hybrid Receiver/Running Back). That's seven players that could start for a lot of teams. Bruce, Mann and Thigpen are givens as long as they are healthy. Williams needs to remain in the lineup because you simply cannot bench a player after he records nearly 200 yards receiving in a game; however, the Cats are still determined to start one of the taller Receivers, so one would think that Grant or Kelly would get a spot. The problem is that that is simply too many Receivers. The Tiger-Cats have too much talent at Receiver, which is a problem many teams wish they had. At some point all these players will be healthy, and there are simply not enough spots to go around. The question remains: who to sit? The answer is not so simple. Williams, however, needs to be in the equation regardless of who the team decides to go with.

One area where Williams has a leg up on his competition is his versatility, especially on Special Teams. Williams is an excellent kick returner, as evidenced by his return in the preseason against the Montreal Alouettes. In the CFL, where the return game is of the utmost importance, being able to break one cannot be overlooked.

So what does the future hold for this potential star in the making? When I see Williams play, I am reminded of another undersized Receiver: Weston Dressler. Dressler has been a stud for the Roughriders since his rookie season in 2008 – when he won the CFL's Most Outstanding Rookie award – and has been an important cog in Saskatchewan's offensive machinery. I see a ton of similarities between the two, with the exception of speed. Dressler is no slowpoke, but Williams has speed that you simply cannot teach. Williams is quicker than a hiccup, and that can be deadly in the wide-open Canadian game.

In a short amount of time, Chris Williams has shown that he belongs in the CFL. Where he goes from here is anyone's guess, but it looks to me like we are all watching the first chapter in The Chris Williams Superstar Story being written.

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