SALT LAKE CITY — With slightly over a week remaining until the Arena Football League regular season kicks off, the Utah Blaze are entering the campaign with championship aspirations.
Coming off its best year in franchise history (9-9) and concluding the season with two straight wins behind the league's most potent offense (first in passing yards per game and third in scoring), Utah is expecting to be in contention for the Arena Bowl in New Orleans come season's end.
"We need to set the standards high," said Blaze coach Ron James, who was named the team's president after his first full season on the sidelines. "You don't go into a season saying, 'I hope we can win some games,' you go in saying, 'Our goal is a championship.' Right now the morale is very high. We're going to have some really good talent on the field."
Utah hits the road in its season-opener against San Antonio on March 10. Last season, the Blaze limped to a 2-7 record away from EnergySolutions Arena.
"The biggest thing is making the players comfortable on the road and then believing in themselves," James said when asked what needed to change in order to gain more road success. "The good thing about it is we open up with two road games so we're going to find out early.
"Last year, we opened up at home and I think we kind of got a false-positive playing a weaker opponent, and then we went on the road and we were up and down from there. We're going to get two tests early on the road. The first part of our schedule is difficult, do we need to come out of the gates fast."
The Blaze play Iowa the following week, a game they lost 50-48 midseason a year ago, before their first home bout against division rival San Jose on March 24.
Quarterback Tommy Grady returns under center after tossing for 4,357 yards and 107 scores with only 11 interceptions in 2011.
He's joined by perhaps the most explosive receiving corps in Arena Football, most notably former Utah State wideout Aaron Lesue, who snagged 27 touchdowns and was a major impact in the return game.
Ernie Pierce, a possession receiver at 6-foot-4 and 209 pounds, will be the focal point on third down and short yardage situations. In his first season with the Blaze, Pierce finished third on the team in receptions with 92 for 1,073 yards and 19 touchdowns.
"We brought back a lot of the receivers and we brought back Tommy," James said. "We brought back our offensive coordinator with Matt Sauk and we upgraded in the offensive line, bringing (former Utah and Weber State head coach) Ron McBride in to coach the front. We've got veteran coaches on the offensive side. Hopefully that will equate to more wins."
If the Blaze are to improve upon last season's record-breaking year, improvement in the defensive secondary is mandatory.
Utah ranked 13th in total defense and 12th at stopping the pass last season.
"Simply, we've got to get better on defense. That's the No. 1 priority," said James. "Our secondary needs to get better."