The season starts Saturday in San Antonio, as the Blaze take on the relocated Talons in their new city, but the game is in serious jeopardy due to a player strike.
The AFL Player Union has been negotiating with the league this week for higher player wages. The average AFL player made $400 a week last season. With negotiations carrying over into Friday evening, Pittsburgh and Orlando played the league’s nationally televised season kickoff game with mostly replacement players.
Blaze players said they had not heard much news about negotiations only hours before the Pittburgh-Orlando game. Wideout Aaron Lesue said the players were planning to stay unified in any scenario, but that his main interest was winning Saturday’s game against San Antonio.
“Everyone has no choice but to see what happens,” Lesue said. “We’re here to play, but we’re kind of left in the middle. We’d like to figure it out before the game, so hopefully someone steps up.”
Last season was about rebirth for the Utah Blaze, about getting on the map and winning more than two games in a season.
If the Blaze were reborn last year, then this season is about growing up. Coming off a 9-9 season, Utah is ready to graduate into Arena Football’s elite and make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
“We started off camp and everyone knew what we were doing,” quarterback Tommy Grady said. “Last year was all about learning the stuff; this year we know the stuff, so everyone’s excited.”
There’s 17 returners to keep the team’s affairs in order — a strong number in a league that is usually fraught with personnel turnover.
Most of the guys coming back are on the offensive side of the ball, starting with Grady and four of the team’s top receivers from last season who are familiar with the team’s offensive scheme that led the league in passing yards until Grady got hurt at the end of the year.
An offense that was more touch-and-go last season should now be more like clockwork, players say. Grady doesn’t have to process where his receivers will be — he knows.
“I’ve never had it that way where I literally turn around and the ball’s there,” Lesue said. “Tommy is amazing. As a receiver, I can trust that he’s putting the ball where it needs to be.”
The Blaze defense was a much different story last season — the secondary was shredded and among the league’s worst statistically.
The rules of the AFL favor offense, and sometimes defense is considered an afterthought. Defensive linemen Caesar Rayford and Michael Lewis both made all-league defensive squads last year, and they’re hoping to change that perception.
“We want to be the No. 1 defense in the league, and not be known for last year,” Rayford says. “We’ve got a huge chip on our shoulder. Everybody’s out there thinking we’re down, but we’re gonna go out there and make stops.”
One returner who is planning to start Saturday is William Mulder, who tore an ACL early last season. He’s spent the better part of a year rehabbing, and is eager to show what he and the new secondary can do under new coordinator Morgan Brown.
The first test could not be much tougher: The Blaze will have to stop quarterback Aaron Garcia, who is one of the perennial top passers in the league.
“Our main thing is we each gotta do our jobs and not leave anybody else hanging,” Mulder said. “We’re watching a lot of film, and I know I have to be out there being quarterback of our defense.”
It will be a test for San Antonio in the opener, but maybe even more so for Utah, which limped to a 2-7 road record last year. But coach Ron James has faith.
“We felt like last year there were a lot more unanswered questions going into our first football game, and we came out very strong in that one,” he said. “We feel more comfortable about the nucleus we bring back and our situation going into the first game. All that combined, I think we should have a very solid year this year.”
Blaze at Talons
P At San Antonio
Kickoff • Saturday, 2 p.m.
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Streaming live • ustream.tv/utahblaze
Of notes • The Blaze open the season on the road against the relocated Talons, but with a player strike looming, teams could hire replacement players.