SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Blaze hosted its annual media day Friday with vibe completely unfamiliar with the franchise.
For the first time, a few wins here and there aren’t satisfactory. Considering the Blaze were a few plays short from advancing to the ArenaBowl last season, paired with strong offseason signings to compliment returning players, Salt Lake City wants a championship.
Blaze coach Ron James realizes expectations are incrementally higher, but is treating the season like any other.
“We don’t manage expectation. We set the bar high and we make sure that our players know every year that we want to compete for a championship,” he said. “We don’t feel the pressure of that. As an organization, we wear it as a badge of honor that we’ve moved the program ahead — we’re known as a winning team on the field at this point.
“That’s fragile in professional sports,” he continued. “You can’t look backwards and say it’s going to happen again this year. You have to move forward and work hard to maintain or excel. We’re in the toughest division in the league, so nothing is a given for us. We just have to keep pushing forward and see what we can accomplish this year.”
Quarterback Tommy Grady returns as the face of the franchise after signing a maximum allotted three-year deal in the offseason. The 2012 AFL MVP rewrote the record book in last season, setting high AFL marks in passing touchdowns (142), total touchdowns (149), passing yards (5,870), pass completions (507) and pass attempts (743).
Grady has improved every season in the AFL, but delivering an encore performance this season is a tall task. James points out that to go up, it doesn’t hurt to go down.
“I wouldn’t at all (be) surprised if he increases his numbers this year. He’s gotten better and I know he’s got a great supporting cast,” James said. “The biggest issue isn’t so much increasing his numbers, it’s decreasing the numbers that counts, and that’s the interceptions.”
Aaron Lesue will once again be Grady’s main target in the outskirts. He’s joined by L.J. Castile (6-4, 220 pounds) and Braylon Bell (6-6, 205 pounds). Castile had 104 receptions for 1,196 yards and 27 touchdowns last year in New Orleans. Bell is a rookie out of Abilene Christian with tremendous upside.
Utah hits the road Saturday at Pittsburgh before its season opener at home on March 29 against defending ArenaBowl champions and division rival Arizona.
“Every season only one team gets to hoist that trophy, so whether we were knocked out in the first round, the championship level or the ArenaBowl,” James said. “If you’re not the champion of league — you better be hungry the next year. You better be ready to prove your worth again.”