When the Utah Blaze re-emerged in 2010 under the newly reformed Arena Football League, the club endured a league basement 2-14 overall record.
Two years later it was a different story thanks to head coach and president Ron James, a dedicated coaching staff and a talented squad of players.
“I would like to thank all of our fans and corporate partners for their support in a record breaking season for our franchise,” James said. “We will begin working towards the 2013 season immediately and I am confident in our ability to take the next step toward an AFL championship in the upcoming year.”
James took the reins midway through the 2010 season and in 2012 transformed the franchise into a serious contender with a team-record 12 regular-season victories (13 wins overall). He also became the team’s most successful coach, with 23 total wins, surpassing former skipper Danny White (21).
Utah also netted its first postseason berth since 2008 and earned its first playoff victory by knocking off the top-seeded San Antonio Talons in the quarterfinals. The Blaze capped off the season by reaching the National Conference Championship game, where they suffered a heartbreaking 75-69 loss at the hands of the Arizona Rattlers.
The Arena Football League recently named James Head Coach of the Year, while offensive coordinator Matt Sauk earned Assistant Coach of the Year honors.
“I am pleased to accept the award of Head Coach of the Year for our franchise, my players, our coaching staff and our great fans,” James said. “Without the support of the best ownership in the league, none of this is possible.”
Utah averaged a stunning 319.9 aerial yards per game while setting new league records for passing yards (5,758), touchdowns (142) and first downs (332).
Blaze quarterback Tommy Grady notched a historic 2012 season, shattering AFL records for passing yards (5,870), touchdowns (142), completions (507) and attempts (743).
“It’s really an honor, but I wouldn’t be able to do it without my teammates,” Grady said. “Our offensive line has given me great protection, our receivers have run great routes, Coach Sauk always creates the best game plans, and Coach James has done a great job of getting us prepared, week in and week out.”
Grady was recently invited to work out with the San Diego Chargers.
Utah’s potent offense also turned out three receivers over 1,000 yards in Aaron Lesué, Tysson Poots and Alvance Robinson. Lesué and Poots each topped 100 receptions on the year.
Known for his acrobatic post-touchdown antics, Lesué (5-10, 195, Utah State) had plenty of reasons to celebrate in 2012. He emerged as one of the most dangerous receiving threats in the AFL, hauling in a franchise-record 56 touchdowns — the third-highest single-season total in league history. He also finished fourth in the AFL in receptions (155) and sixth in receiving yards (1,810).
“I feel really fortunate to be in this situation,” Lesué said. “If it weren’t for Tommy, our receivers, our offensive line, and Coach Sauk, I wouldn’t be able to accomplish what I have. I just do my best to do my assignment and execute the offense. To see all of our hard work result in this honor is really special.”
Grady and Lesué were both named to the 2012 All-Arena Offensive team after the duo combined on over 50 touchdown completions.
“Tommy and I all put a lot of work in during the offseason,” Lesué said. “We went to the gym together, we threw together and we practiced routes. To see all of the hard work we’ve put in come together like this is really a great feeling.”
After a shaky first half of the season on the other side of the ball, Utah went through a major defensive shift when the Blaze hired defensive coordinator Rob Keefe after a three-game losing skid where the Blaze allowed 220 points and gave up 980 yards through May.
Keefe tuned the secondary and Utah won six of its last seven games.
Defensive end Michael Lewis was named to the 2012 First-team All-Arena defensive squad for the second consecutive season and set single-season franchise records with 12.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss, finishing third in the AFL in both categories.
Lewis ranks second on the Blaze all-time record list with 21 career sacks and paced a Utah defensive line that racked up the third-highest sack total in the AFL with 33.
During Thursdays night’s coaches show, Sauk admitted it was disappointing to miss out on a shot at the championship but was enthusiastic when he reflected on the success of 2012 and what the team had accomplished.
“We’re not the 2-14 team we were two years ago,” Sauk said. “And it means that we put in the time, we got the players to come here, and it’s only going to keep on going up.”