1 of 9
Mike Terry, Deseret News
Blaze's Huey Whittaker, shown here practicing this week, has combined with Aaron Boone and J.J. McKelvey for a potent wide receiver corps.

Damon Mason has been around the Arena Football League a long, long time. The veteran defensive back has played for Orlando, New Jersey, Las Vegas, Carolina, Orlando again, Grand Rapids, Austin and Orlando for a third time.

Mason has played on some bad teams and some good teams while becoming the AFL's all-time leading tackler. But never had he played on a team that started the year as poorly as the Utah Blaze. At the same time, he'd never been on a team that has showed as much improvement as the Blaze, either.

"This is the most amazing turnaround for a team that I've ever been a part of," said Mason of the once 0-9 Blaze's current 5-10 record. "I'd been part of some good turnarounds — in Las Vegas and Austin and Orlando — but this has been the most amazing by far."

Utah can clinch its third straight playoff berth on Saturday with a win during the regular season finale at Arizona. In addition, the Blaze are still in the hunt to host a playoff game.

So just how did the team that went the first two months of the season without a single victory manage to right the ship enough to string together five wins in their past six games?

There were many contributing factors — a favorable schedule and simple good fortune among them. But the most obvious improvement has been on defense.

Through nine games the Blaze were last in the league in scoring defense, giving up an average of 66 points. In the past six games, however, Utah has seen nearly a two touchdown improvement, giving up 53.3 points per outing. Take away the 74 points the division champion San Jose SaberCats scored in the lone loss in the past six games and the Blaze have been surrendering fewer than 50 points per outing of late.

"Everything has just come together in recent weeks," said Blaze defensive coordinator Ron James. "Everybody is more familiar with what we want to do, they are in the right positions and just playing fundamental arena football."

The Blaze got the year off to a rocky start with many new players, including two rookies in the starting defensive secondary to go along with veteran Reggie Doster, who was new to Utah. It simply wasn't working out and Utah coach Danny White, who is also the team's general manager, was quick to make some changes.

First, he traded up-and-coming defensive lineman Rob Schroeder to Orlando for Mason between the third and fourth games. Then he landed Eddie Canonico in a trade with Los Angeles for future considerations. In addition, White first demoted and then fired defensive coordinator Hunkie Cooper, replacing him with James, who had been on the staff as the line coach.

Utah suddenly had three veteran defensive backs instead of one. It took several weeks for the trio to get on the same page and for Mason to recover from a nagging injury, but they've been outstanding for the Blaze over the past few games.

"It's great to have three experienced guys back there in the secondary," White said. "They know the game and can communicate with each other. That's been the thing that's really turned our defense around."

Canonico, who leads the Blaze in both interceptions (4) and tackles (110), is not surprised by the improved play of the defense. He only wishes the team could have been together sooner.

"I was talking to Damon the other day and I said, 'Imagine if we were all here in training camp together — me, you and Reggie (Doster). We could have built up the camaraderie that we have now before the season even started.' And Damon was like, 'Yeah, we'd be killing it right now.'"

In addition to the improved play of the secondary, the Blaze have been getting outstanding performances by rookie linebacker Kelvin Morris, who has six fumble recoveries, and defensive lineman Dwayne Missouri, who leads the team with five sacks and seven tackles for loss.

Saying someone is "not thinking" is not normally a compliment, but lack of thought has been a godsend to the Blaze defense, according to the coach.

"Now we're able to make a call and they just react," said White of his defense. "They don't have to think anymore. They just react and play football. Before they were thinking too much."

Blaze quarterback Joe Germaine and his three top receivers — Huey Whittaker, Aaron Boone and J.J. McKelvey — were putting up huge numbers all season, even during the long losing streak. The defense simply wasn't getting enough turnovers and stops for Utah to win.

Still, Mason said the team never started pointing fingers at each other and never stopped believing it could turn things around.

"A house divided against itself cannot stand," said Mason, a devout Christian. "This house had its issues, but this house stayed together and we are reaping the benefits and the blessings right now."

On fire

The Utah Blaze started the season 0-9, but have since become one of the hottest teams in the Arena Football League, going 5-1 in their past six games. Better scoring defense has been a key. Here is a comparison:

FIRST 9 GAMES

Record: 0-9

Blaze scoring avg.: 55.3 points

Opponent scoring avg.: 66.0 points

PAST 6 GAMES

Record: 5-1

Blaze scoring avg.: 63.5 points

Opponents' scoring avg.: 53.3 points

Blaze on the air

Utah Blaze (5-10)

at Arizona Rattlers (8-7)

Saturday, 7 p.m.

TV: none

Radio: 1320 AM


E-mail: lojo@desnews.com