It’s been a bitter offseason for Utah Blaze fans who, just last August, saw their team come within a play of the Arena Bowl during a record-breaking 2012 season.
After some big moves in the offseason, including an ownership change and fresh faces on both sides of the ball, the Blaze are ready to kick off 2013 tonight against the Pittsburgh Power at the Consol Energy Center in the Steel City.
Pittsburgh’s defense is charged with the task of stopping Arena Football League MVP quarterback Tommy Grady and an explosive Utah offense that 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) in 2012.
Despite setting nearly every AFL passing record last season, early indication from the coaching staff is that this year’s group could be even more effective.
Grady notched a historic 2012 season of his own, shattering AFL records for passing yards (5,870), touchdowns (142), completions (507) and attempts (743).
His 2013 wide receiver corps features veterans in Aaron Lesué, Brandon Thompkins and L.J. Castile a trio that combined for 335 receptions, 3,913 receiving yards and 109 touchdowns in 2012.
Known for his acrobatic catches and post-touchdown antics, Lesué had plenty of reasons to celebrate in 2012 emerging as one of the most dangerous receiving threats in the AFL. The 5-foot-10, 195-pound Utah State alumnus hauled in a franchise-record 56 touchdowns — third-highest single-season total in league history – and finished fourth in the AFL in receptions (155), sixth in receiving yards (1,810).
Grady and Lesué were both named to the 2012 All-Arena offensive team after the duo combined on over 50 touchdown completions.
Rookie wideouts Mario Urrutia and Chase Deadder will add an extra element of size and strength, as both players measure in at 6-5 and over 225 pounds and Utah’s all-time leading rusher fullback Ben Stallings returns to the backfield for his third campaign in orange and black.
Pittsburgh will counter with the Arena Football League’s top-ranked secondary in 2012, as the Power surrendered just 218.8 passing yards per game last season.
Led by defensive back Chris Leflore, who posted a team-high nine interceptions last year, added to the secondary in the offseason was defensive back Sergio Gilliam, who delivered 15 interceptions over the past two years for the Kansas City Command.
Pittsburgh’s biggest free agent acquisition of the offseason was first-team All-Arena linebacker Alvin Ray Jackson who led the Arena Football League with 14 interceptions in 2012 as a member of the New Orleans VooDoo.
The Blaze are excited to unveil a new-look defense that looks to be much improved from seasons past. Veteran defensive backs David Hyland and Al Phillips return to the secondary while first-year starter Maurice Leggett enters his rookie season in the AFL, and has already displayed outstanding coverage ability thanks to a unique combination of size and athleticism.
Antwan Marsh is a natural playmaker and will also be back in the lineup as Utah’s starting linebacker.
Former LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson will make his first appearance as Pittsburgh’s starter this Saturday.
Jefferson’s inaugural game will be baptism by fire as he takes on the vaunted Blaze defensive front, dubbed “Sack Lake City.” Caesar Rayford is the longest-tenured member of the team and notched 7.5 sacks last season while Keenan Mace returns to anchor the interior after leading all AFL nose guards with seven sacks in 2012.
The game will stream online through AFL Live and CBS Sports Network and can also be heard on The Zone 97.5 FM.
Utah’s home opener is slated for March 28 at 7:30 p.m. as they take on the Arizona Rattlers in a rematch of last year’s National Conference championship at EnergySolutions Arena.