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Blaze select Hunter with draft's 1st pick

Coach White chooses 20 players in 2005 AFL expansion draft

Blaze head coach and general manager Danny White looks over a chart of potential draft picks Monday.
Blaze head coach and general manager Danny White looks over a chart of potential draft picks Monday.
Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News

At one point late in the Arena Football League expansion draft, Danny White was pacing the halls thinking while fielding trade offers from other teams.

As the only team involved in the AFL expansion draft, the Utah Blaze had done pretty much all of its thinking before the conference call began. Still, White had his share of nerves and compared the process to beginning a family.

"Baby and mom are fine," Utah's head coach said as he entered the post-draft press conference. "They're expected to have a healthy and happy future."

The baby — or in this case, the babies — are the first players officially to become members of the Blaze family. And, not surprisingly, the first name to leave White's mouth was one he is familiar with.

Kelvin Hunter, a 5-foot-10 defensive specialist with the Austin Wranglers, played for White in Arizona for a few seasons and will rejoin his former coach in Utah. The Blaze, with no competition for players during the 20-round draft, didn't particularly care where they slotted most players. Hunter was the exception.

"That was the only one that was in a particular order," White said. "We wanted to bring in a guy that we knew was going to come in and play. He's definitely our kind of guy and he's excited about coming to Utah and playing."

Hunter played his college ball at Arizona and has been in the AFL for the past five seasons, making 39 tackles, intercepting four balls and breaking up 10 passes last year.

The only downside of selecting Hunter first was Austin had the option to take another of its unprotected players off the board. The Wranglers did just that by pulling veteran kicker Todd Sievers away from Utah. White admitted Sievers was going to be Utah's next selection.

The Blaze followed the selection of Hunter by choosing Los Angeles lineman Fred Ray, who White said is one of the best veteran linemen in the league.

Utah chose to use all 20 of its draft picks, but will probably trade away a handful of those players. White said the Blaze have trades all-but-finalized for at least three of those picks and will need to cross some T's and dot some I's on contracts before anything is complete.

Utah, with a 13th-round selection, drafted current New Orleans Saints quarterback Adrian McPherson. White said he was selected not because the Blaze thought he would help the team this year, but for possible trade value to other teams. McPherson is a former AFL rookie of the year and a fifth-round draft pick of the Saints last year.

The draft was important to the Blaze because these are the first players to become the property of the expansion franchise. Utah has been in negotiations with dozens of free agents, but is unable to sign them until Oct. 1.

A few players have come to terms with the Blaze and will possibly be announced Saturday. White said he has a commitment from a veteran quarterback that will likely be the starter when the season opens up in January. One of those may be Sherdrick Bonner, the starting quarterback in Arizona last year. With 662 career touchdowns spanning a 12-year AFL career, Bonner has all the skill and experience to step in and make the Blaze competitive right away.

Having played for White and winning the 1994 ArenaBowl doesn't hurt, either.

White said the existing contracts of players played a big role in the expansion draft. Jeroid Johnson, a veteran defensive specialist with Chicago, had a salary too large for the Blaze to accept.

"He's a guy that we liked," White said of the 32-year-old from Oklahoma State. "But his contract was for more than we thought he was worth at that age."

But for the Blaze, nabbing Hunter made the draft worthwhile. And, according to the former Wrangler, the Blaze are getting someone eager to show he belongs in the AFL.

"It's cool," Hunter said in a telephone interview. "I'll be there ready to go whenever they want me there."

The Blaze have a couple of busy weeks ahead of them. In addition to signing free agents this weekend, Utah will be holding another mini-camp of sorts for select free agents. Of the 200-plus that showed up for the open tryouts last month, 54 have been called back to get a second — or, in some cases, a third — look. Players such as former Utes Omar Bacon and Doug Kaufusi, former Cougars Luke Staley and Dustin Rykert, and former Aggie Emmitt White have all been asked to report.