PROGRAMMING NOTE: Watch the SaberCats take on the Arizona Rattlers on Saturday night at 9:30 p.m. in HD on Comcast SportsNet California.
The SaberCats open their 2012 campaign with the goal of returning to the top of the Arena Football League. Last year San Jose returned from a two-year hiatus with high hopes but a six-game losing streak in the middle of the season resulted in a disappointing 7-11 record. For the first time since 1999 the SaberCats were unable to compete for an Arena Bowl title.
The road to redemption begins with Saturdays opening night matchup against the Arizona Rattlers.
Here are some things to watch for Saturday night:
QB Matchup - Mark Grieb vs. Nick Davila
Grieb, a two-time Arena Bowl MVP, set the league record last season with 5,312 passing yards. The 2011 AFL MVP led the league in pass efficiency with 127.6 yards. Grieb has passed for over 42,000 yards in his 12-year career, Both Arizona and San Jose finished in the top-10 in scoring in 2011, with the SaberCats finishing No. 1 in total offense. Expect more fireworks Saturday when these two gunslingers battle it out for QB supremacy in 2012.
San Jose's New Defense Philosophy
New defensive coordinator Cedric Walker may have the toughest job in Arena Football. In a league that promotes offense, he has to find ways to stop it. The SaberCats allowed a league-worst 320.4 yards per game in 2011 and gave up a third-worst 60 points per game. The Cats also brought in former NFL assistant coach Kerry Locklin, who helped the 2009 New York Jets defense post a league-low points allowed per game (14.7), while recording 32 sacks. Newly signed Tim McGill, who last year with Tampa Bay, became the first nose tackle in Arena Football history to post 10 sacks in a season, joins the returning two-time All Arena and 2010 Defensive Player of the Year Gabe Nyenhuis to form what could turn out to be the most feared front line in the league.
A New Beginning with Some New Faces
The SaberCats are used to attracting the top players in the game. Last season they had to adjust to being an expansion team with expansion players. Head coach Darren Arbet hit the recruiting trail hard this season and it paid off with the signings of two-time All-Arena WR Huey Whitaker, 2011 All-Arena DB Andre Jones, 2011 All-Arena DL Tim McGill, 2011 AFL Offensive Lineman of the Year Rich Ranglin and 2010 All-Arena DB Vince Hill. WR Hank Edwards broke numerous school records on his way to a DII All-American First Team selection. WR Taurus Johnson brings three years of NFL experience to an already deep receiving corps. Aligning all the stars on both sides of the ball will be the key to making this a successful season.
Looking In the Mirror
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The Rattlers are led by former SaberCats defensive coordinator Kevin Guy, the AFLs 2011 Coach of the Year. Omarr Smith, who won three of his four Arena Bowl rings with San Jose, coaches the Arizona defense. They brought the SaberCat Way to the desert and it paid off with a 16-2 record and a trip to Arena Bowl XXIV. It is always tough to beat a rival, and in this case, it is even tougher to beat an image of yourself.
As it is every year, expectations are high in San Jose. This organization expects nothing but the best from its players and coaches. That is why players come here. That is why coaches want to coach here. And that is why the fans pack the Pavilion on game nights. The San Jose SaberCats begin their 16th season Saturday night with every hope of a trip to New Orleans and another Arena Bowl championship.
Nick Laino is a tape playback operator with Comcast SportsNet Bay Area and the HP Arena public address announcer for the San Jose SaberCats.