SALT LAKE CITY — As the NFL drifts into what seems to be an inevitable players' lockout, football fans are searching for an immediate replacement.
Luckily for fans in the Beehive State, the Utah Blaze season kicks off tonight at EnergySolutions Arena at 7 p.m.
Heading into the first game of the season, expectations are in full bloom, despite last season's struggles.
The Blaze went 2-14 for the worst record in the first year of the revived AFL. However, Utah coach Ron James attributes the rough season to a transition process with the coaching staff.
"I don't think we take away much from last season. Last season was a rebuilding process — having come in with a staff midway through the season," James said. "So the takeaway isn't big, but moving forward, we're just looking forward to seeing how this new group attacks the challenges of arena football."
This offseason, the Blaze sustained a complete makeover — waiving 11 players from last season, placing five on injured reserve and re-signing one player.
"We've got a young bunch, and we're excited about seeing how they account for themselves in the first football game. I think that offensively we've got some great weapons," James said. "We feel good about that, and we feel like our offensive front is coming along as well. I think offensively we're going to be pretty explosive."
At the helm of the offense this year is quarterback Tommy Grady.
Grady, who finished his collegiate career at the University of Utah after transferring from Oklahoma, spent last season in the minor af2 league with the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz. He completed 363-of-597 pass attempts for 4,307 yards and 81 touchdowns in his second season.
"Tommy played well last year with the Oklahoma City team, and he's a guy that has great command of the offense," James said. "He's a big quarterback at 6-foot-7, so he's going to be able to see over the line and see downfield, which gives him a big advantage. I just think with his leadership this year we're going to be a different ballclub."
Grady's main target will be veteran wideout Aaron Boone, who returns after enjoying a career year last season.
Boone led the Blaze in all receiving categories to earn a second-team All-Arena placement with 146 receptions for 1,448 yards and 46 scores.
Tonight's opener will be an early indicator on where the team stands after the busy offseason.
The Storm advanced to the Arena Bowl but eventually fell to Spokane.
"Tampa is always a very solid ball club; they're one of the better teams in the league, James said. "They were one of the most physical bunches (in the league).
"You're going to see probably the largest offensive line in arena football history when those guys march out onto the field. They're going to be a big bunch of bruisers; we're looking to see how we account for ourselves with a top-flight program, so it's a great test for us out of the gates."
To avenge a 65-40 loss to the Storm last season, the Blaze may need to pull out a couple of leprechaun tricks in this St. Patrick's Day season-opener.
AFL season opener
Tampa Bay Storm at Utah Blaze
Tonight, 7 p.m.
Radio: 1280 AM, 104.7 FM
Online live video: niftytv.com/afl