TORONTO — Chris Williams of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts star Chad Owens are making a serious run at bucking CFL tradition.
Since 1980, quarterbacks have captured the league’s outstanding player award a whopping 23 times.
And even this year, Montreal’s Anthony Calvillo — a three-time winner and the CFL’s leading passer — and Hamilton’s Henry Burris — who has a league-best 27 TD passes and is second overall in passing — are certainly in the mix again for the CFL’s top individual honour.
But through nearly two-thirds of the CFL regular season, it’s Williams and Owens who’ve emerged as top candidates.
Williams not only leads the league in TDs (12) but has scored a record six on kick returns.
He’s also tops in punt returns and missed field goal returns while standing third in receiving.
The five-foot-nine, 155-pound dynamo, the CFL’s top rookie last year, has been an electrifying player in 2012, someone who makes opposing coaches and players as well as fans collectively hold their breath every time he touches the ball.
Owens has also been impressive, standing first in kickoff returns and second in punt returns and receiving. He’s amassed 2,695 all-purpose yards and is on pace to obliterate the league record of 3,840 set in 1990 by former Argos star player and coach Mike (Pinball) Clemons when he was named the CFL’s top player.
And when Owens surpasses the 3,000-yard mark, he’ll become the first player in pro football history to do so three straight seasons.
Here’s a look at other contenders for the CFL’s individual honours:
B.C. quarterback Travis Lulay won last year’s award and has helped stake the defending Grey Cup champions to a league-best 8-3 record. He’s fourth overall in passing with 3,040 yards but is the West Division’s leader.
Another contender is Calgary slotback Nik Lewis, who is fourth overall with 68 catches for 882 yards and seven TDs.
Stampeders tailback Jon Cornish, a native of New Westminster, B.C., is leading the league in rushing and on pace for over 1,400 yards, which should garner him some consideration, but truthfully in the pass-happy CFL a running back should run for 1,800 or more yards in order to not be overshadowed in voting.
This is Cornish’s award to lose. The 27-year-old is looking to become just the fourth Canadian to lead the CFL in rushing and first since 1988 when former Simon Fraser star Orville Lee ran for 1,075 yards as a rookie with the Ottawa Rough Riders.
It’s hard to say who has stepped up in the East Division although Montreal linebacker Shea Emery, a native of Richmond, B.C., has been steady with 61 tackles to stand tied for fourth overall.
He was the West Division finalist last year and B.C. Lions tackle Jovan Olafioye hasn’t done anything to show he shouldn’t be considered again. The six-foot-six, 325-pound Olafioye has helped a Lions line that’s allowed a league-low 13 sacks despite injuries to veterans Dean Valli, Jesse Newman and Jon Hameister-Ries.
Other potential contenders include Calgary’s Dmitri Tsoumpas and Saskatchewan’s Brendon LaBatte.
In the East, Montreal tackle Josh Bourke, last year’s winner, is a leading contender again this season anchoring an Alouettes line that has allowed just 18 sacks.
OUTSTANDING DEFENSIVE PLAYER
Edmonton’s J.C. Sherritt is the front-runner for this honour. The sophomore linebacker has been dominant with a league-leading 93 tackles, 29 more than his closest rival. At this pace, he’ll easily break Calvin Tiggle’s league record of 129. Sherritt has also added three forced fumbles and two sacks.
Lions’ linebacker Adam Bighill (61 tackles) has also been solid while Eskimos defender Joe Burnett has returned two of his league-high five interceptions for TDs but Sherritt is definitely the man.
In the East Division, Hamilton linebackers Renauld Williams and Jamall Johnson are second and third, respectively in tackles but their play hasn’t translated into success for the Ticats’ unit. Someone worth watching could be Pat Watkins, Toronto’s six-foot-five, 220-pound cornerback who has four interceptions (one returned for a TD) and 41 tackles this season.
This is Williams’ award to lose. He’s averaging over 16 yards per punt return — which would be another CFL record if he maintained that mark — to go with five punt return TDs.
Calgary’s Larry Taylor, like Williams a triple threat on special teams, would’ve been a solid contender in the West, but he’s likely finished due to injury. B.C.’s Tim Brown is second overall in punt returns and averaging a solid 12.7 yards per return and has two special-teams TDs.
Chris Matthews has been one of the few bright spots for struggling Winnipeg (2-9). The six-foot-five, 229-pound receiver has 51 catches for 749 yards and five touchdowns.
First-year CFL player Kory Sheets is second overall in rushing with 761 yards but is ineligible became he appeared in two games with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.
First overall pick Ben Heenan opened the season starting for Saskatchewan but is now a backup. B.C. defensive lineman Jabar Westerman — drafted second overall — has shown he belongs in spot duty with the Grey Cup champions and even registered three sacks.