Arena football • With 2012 MVP and COY back, Blaze aim to top last season's records.
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The MVP is back. Ditto for the Coach of the Year.
But arguably the most crucial facet of last year's record-setting Utah Blaze team has received a serious makeover, and in the wake of the most successful season in franchise history, quarterback Tommy Grady, last season's Arena Football League MVP, must get used to all these new wide receivers flanking him leading up to Saturday's season opener against the Pittsburgh Power.
Lucky for Grady and coach Ron James, Aaron Lesue, a former Utah State University wideout, returns after setting an AFL record with 64 touchdown receptions. But as James said, the organization made a concerted effort to upgrade the group of receivers.
They may be new and green, but the echoing sentiment around the franchise is that this group can be special, and with Grady's thunderous right arm making reads all over the EnergySolutions Arena turf, the outlook is quite bright.
"I'd say that's the strongest part of our team right now," said James, who was named the AFL Coach of the Year last season. "There are a lot of new faces, but they've jelled so well. You wouldn't believe a group like this would come together this fast."
Of the four key new receivers added to the roster, each one stands at least 6-foot-4 and has blazing speed. LJ Castile, Braylon Bell, Chase Deadder and Mario Urrutia will join Lesue in hopes of becoming the most diverse and talented wideout bunch in the air-attacking AFL.
While last year's 12-6 campaign brought many firsts, including the team's first postseason victory, Lesue said he and other team leaders have already ingrained a thought process among their teammates that it's not about individual accolades or highlight-reel displays.
"Finally bring a championship here," Lesue said. "That's the one record."
In order to do that, the Blaze must contend in the most difficult division in the AFL, surrounded by perennial powerhouses Arizona and San Jose. Arizona won the AFL crown a year ago, and actually rallied past a Blaze team that, as Lesue succinctly pointed out, had a nine-point lead evaporate with a minute remaining in the conference championship game.
"We had a lot of benchmarks achieved as an organization and as a football team, but let's be real about it: We were third in our division and fourth seed in the playoffs in our conference, so we didn't achieve anything," James said.
The Blaze are expecting big things defensively from Caesar Rayford, Joe Mortensen, Keenan Mace and defensive backs Justin Taplin-Ross and Maurice Leggett.
But the focus will obviously be on defending MVP Grady, who obliterated regular-season AFL records in passing touchdowns (142), total touchdowns (149), passing yards (5,870), pass completions (507) and pass attempts (743) in 2012.
"We plan on breaking the wins record," he said. "The records are great, but we all play to win a championship."
Utah Blaze season preview
• 2012 AFL MVP Tommy Grady shattered regular-season AFL records in passing touchdowns (142), total touchdowns (149), passing yards (5,870), pass completions (507) and pass attempts (743) in 2012.
• Blaze coach Ron James won AFL Coach of the Year, leading the Blaze to a 12-6 record 4-2 in division and winning the first playoff game in franchise history.
• A brand new group of receivers are set to flank Grady, joining WR Aaron Lesue, who set an AFL record for most touchdowns caught in a season with 64 in 2012. Joining Lesue are Braylon Bell, LJ Castile, Chase Deadder, Mario Urrutia, among others.
Blaze at Power
O At Pittsburgh
Saturday, 4 p.m.