2013 Preview: Utah Blaze

Aaron Lesue had a breakout season with the Blaze in 2012.

Feb. 28, 2013

AFNation Report

2012 RECORD: 12-6 (3rd, National Conference West)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2012 (Lost to Arizona Rattlers in Semifinal Playoff Game)

COACH (RECORD): Ron James (35-39 overall, 22-21 with Utah)

OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Tommy Grady (68.2 completion percentage, 5,870 passing yards, 142 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: DL Caesar Rayford (21 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 3 PBU)

2012 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 3rd overall (t-1st passing, 15th rushing), 3rd scoring (62.7 ppg)

2012 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 11th overall (11th passing, 9th rushing), 15th scoring (58.4 ppg)

KEY ADDITONS: WR L.J. Castile (New Orleans), WR Jared Jenkins (Milwaukee), OL Shannon Tevaga (from Spokane), OL Jermarcus Hardrick (free agent), OL Mario Henderson (free agent), OL/DL Clay Harrell (free agent), DL Mike Alston (Spokane), DB Josh Ferguson (Spokane), DB Maurice Leggett (free agent)

KEY DEPARTURES: QB Carson Coffman (Chicago), DL Mike Lewis (Iowa), WR Tysson Poots (Arizona), WR/KR Alvance Robinson (Philadelphia)

KEY FREE AGENTS: WR Shaun Kauleinamoku, WR Ernest Pierce, WR/KR Chris Bocage, OL Ed Ta’amu, DB Carlton Brown, DB David Hyland, DB William Mulder

MARQUEE MATCHUPS: Arizona (Week 2), Spokane (Week 7)

PROGNOSIS: The Utah Blaze, blessed with one of the most electric attacks in the Arena Football League in 2012, experienced a fair amount of turnover in their receiving corps during the offseason. Tysson Poots, one of the toughest young receivers in the game, bolted to division rival Arizona. Similarly, Alvance Robinson, who posted 1,015 receiving yards in 10 games with the Blaze last season, has been assigned to another ArenaBowl contender in Philadelphia. The Blaze didn’t waste time mourning, however, bringing in potent weapons in L.J. Castile, who recorded 1,196 receiving yards for New Orleans last season, and Jared Jenkins, who reeled off 119 receptions for 1,610 yards as a rookie with the Milwaukee Mustangs last year. Castile and Jenkins will join Aaron Lesue – who more than doubled his touchdown total from 27 in 2011 to 56 last season – in providing Utah with a three-headed monster at the receiver position. Where it matters most, however, the Blaze have remained stable, with quarterback Tommy Grady coming back after a record-breaking year in Salt Lake City and Ben Stallings, the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, returning to Utah for a third year. So long as the Blaze have Tommy “The Tower” Grady, who accumulated an unbelievable 5,870 passing yards and 142 touchdowns last season, they will be head and shoulders above most defenses in the AFL – literally and figuratively. On the defensive side of the ball, “Sack Lake City” took a bit of a hit themselves with the departure of Mike Lewis, who compiled 23 sacks during his two years in Utah. Utah will now rely on Mike Alston to help keep offensive lines from doubling up on Caesar Rayford, who is the franchise record holder with 23.5 career sacks, and Keenan Mace, who flashed All-Arena potential as a rookie nose guard last season. With Mace and Rayford still donning the orange and black, the Blaze should be able to generate an above-average pass rush, which when combined with experienced defensive backs in Al Phillips and Josh Ferguson should lead to poise in their pass defense. Phillips and Ferguson will need to emerge as leaders, however, given that the Blaze have five rookie defensive backs on their roster at the moment, and veteran leader David Hyland remains a free agent. While the spotlight will surely shine on the Blaze as they attempt to wrest West Division supremacy from the Rattlers, attention should also be paid to an emerging rivalry between Utah and Spokane, from which the Blaze took offensive lineman Shannon Tevaga, as well as Alston and Ferguson.