Utah Blaze coach Danny White liked what he had seen late last season from practice-team wide receiver Huey Whittaker. Entering the 2008 campaign, White thought the lanky, 6-foot-5 player out of South Florida could help the Blaze replace star Siaha Burley, who had signed a free agent deal with the Arizona Rattlers.
Turns out, White was right even if Whittaker had few credentials to show from his first two years in the AFL.
On Wednesday Whittaker was named a member of the 17-man All-Arena first team, the only player on the 2008 Blaze to earn such a distinction. Blaze quarterback Joe Germaine was named to the second team.
Utah opened the season 0-9, but turned the season around during the final two months. The Blaze won six of their final seven games to earn not only a playoff spot, but a home game on Saturday against the Colorado Crush.
Whittaker was one of three Blaze receivers to finish in the top 10 in the league in yardage this season. He had 126 catches for 1,541 yards and 32 touchdowns. Two other Blaze pass catchers J.J. McKelvey (1,529 yards) and Aaron Boone (1,527 yards) also had big seasons.
"This is a team game in every sense of the word, especially here," said Whittaker. "We all just tried to get open as best as we could for Joe and he got it to us and we've all made it happen."
Whittaker's big year was surprising to many in the league. After all, he had a grand total of six catches in 2006 and 2007 while spending the most of his time on the practice squads for the Tampa Bay Storm and Blaze. Neither McKelvey nor Boone had breakout years in '07, either. But the trio became the first teammates in any pro football league to all gain more than 1,500 yards with 100-plus catches each during the same season.
"We are so lucky to have those guys," said Germaine of his receivers. "They really have done a nice job of just making plays out there and they all play for one another. They are all right at 15-hundred yards and it's pretty incredible."
McKelvey and Germaine weren't the only Blaze players to be honored by the AFL this week. Defensive lineman Maurice Fountain was named to the league's All-Rookie team.
"Huey Whittaker called me to congratulate me and I didn't know what he was congratulating me for," said Fountain. "He said he saw on the Web that I'd made the All-Rookie team. I feel really good about it."
Fountain, who played his college ball at Clemson, finished the regular season with 13.5 total tackles, one forced fumble and one pass breakup in just nine games. He finished second on the team with four sacks. Fountain, who had been on the practice squad, didn't make his debut with the team until nearly halfway through the year. But an injury to E.J. Burt gave him the opportunity to play and he made the most of it."Everybody around here is referring to E.J. as Wally Pipp," joked White, referring to the guy who sat out the day Yankee great Lou Gehrig started his long consecutive games played streak. "Maurice has come in and done a great job. He's all energy. He just goes and goes and goes. And on the defensive line when you play with that kind of a mentality, sometimes things just fall in you lap just because you are hustling."
Colorado Crush (6-10) at Utah Blaze (6-10)
Saturday, 2 p.m.