Chris Williams experienced two very different firsts in his 2016 CFL season.
The veteran receiver celebrated his first championship in November when Ottawa captured the Grey Cup with a stunning 39-33 overtime win over the Calgary Stampeders. But Williams could only watch the Redblacks’ championship run after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in October, his first major football-related injury.
“I was having a pretty good year before the injury so, personally other than that, the season couldn’t have gone much better,” Williams said during a telephone interview. “The knee is coming along pretty well as I’m running, jumping and cutting.
“I think (he’ll be ready for training camp) but we’ve still got a couple of months so we’ll just kind of play it by ear. But I haven’t had any setbacks so I’m moving forward just trying to get myself better than ever.”
Williams, 29, was on pace for a banner year when he was hurt, registering 77 catches for 1,246 yards and 10 TDs in 14 games. He had a career-best 88 receptions in 2015 with Ottawa while accumulating 1,298 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns in 2012 with Hamilton.
Williams helped anchor an Ottawa receiving corps that featured four 1,000-yard performers in both 2015 and ’16. He signed this off-season as a free agent with B.C., joining a dynamic pass-catching group that includes veterans Emmanuel Arcenaux (105 catches, 1,566 yards, 13 TDs) and Bryan Burnham (79 receptions, 1,392 yards, three TDs).
“That’s the great thing about football, it’s never one guy,” Williams said. “What I like is we’re all so different that it really makes it tough (for opposing defences).
“You kind of get speed and quickness with me, then you’ve got a guy like Manny who’s big, physical and imposing while Burnham can go up and catch whatever. It creates a lot of issues for teams and you have to pick your poison to a certain extent.”
The addition of Williams gives quarterback Jonathon Jennings another downfield option. The 24-year-old Jennings was stellar in his first full season as the starter, passing for 5,226 yards with 27 TDs in leading the Lions (12-6) to second in the West Division.
The five-foot-nine, 155-pound Williams figures a veteran receiving corps should only help Jennings in 2017.
“Jonathon has all the tools,” Williams said. “I think he’ll be able to trust that the guys will be where they’re supposed to be at and that’s big for a quarterback because he’s already got enough to worry about.
“You’ve got people who’ve played before, who know where to be and how to get open. It can definitely be a big help as opposed to a hindrance to a quarterback.”
Williams definitely presents a big-play threat, having registered 32 career TD catches in 63 regular-season games with Hamilton and Ottawa. After being named the CFL’s top rookie in 2011, Williams was the league’s outstanding special-teams player with a record six return touchdowns (five on punts, another on a missed field goal).
B.C. already has one of the CFL’s top special-teams performers in Chris Rainey, who boasted a 13.9-yard punt-return average with two TDs last year. The addition of Williams gives the Lions the option of spelling Rainey or putting both threats on the field together.
Williams had 57 punt returns with Ottawa in 2015 but only 12 last year. In 2011, Williams had 78 returns for 1,117 yards (14.3-yard average).
“I think as I am getting older and being really locked in with the offence, it’s nice to have a little bit of a break,” he said. “When you’re doing that (returning kicks and playing receiver) for a full 18 games it can get a little dicey for your body.
“But when you have multiple guys who can do it, everybody stays fresh, everybody stays hungry and it’s a lot of fun to compete.”
Williams finds himself in Vancouver two years after choosing the Redblacks over the Lions as a free agent upon reaching an injury settlement with the NFL’s Chicago Bears. While being excited about playing with B.C., Williams isn’t entirely thrilled about having to relocate his family (wife, Lana, seven-year-old daughter Karissa and sons C.J, four, and Knighdon, two).
“I definitely enjoyed my time in Ottawa, I couldn’t have asked for anything more,” Williams said. “That’s the sucky part about the business when you’re changing so much, especially for a guy like myself who has a wife and young kids.
“But you’ve got to roll with the punches. (B.C.) was a team I’d previously talked with and the timing was just right this time around.”
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press