It's been a year of change for the Rush, Chicago's long-time Arena Football League powerhouse.
Under new ownership, head coach Bob McMillen's team is attempting to bounce back from a 10-8 record. While a winning record is a plus for most teams in Chicago, it was the first time in franchise history the Rush failed to qualify for the playoffs, dating back to their inaugural season of 2001.
And it was a drop-off from McMillen's rookie season as head coach, when the Rush went 13-5.
New owner David Staral has had the team for only a short while, but he's eagerly awaiting Saturday's 7 p.m. season opener at Rosemont's Allstate Arena against the Iowa Barnstormers.
"It's been five weeks since I bought the team, and every morning I get more excited," Staral said. "It's not going to be easy, but as long as we make progress every day we'll be successful. We'll get to our end goal and bust our butts to get the Rush back to the forefront of the AFL."
McMillen, in his third season directing the Rush following a Hall of Fame Arena League playing career, believes his team has the right mix of experienced veterans and talented newcomers to return to the postseason.
Record-setting wide receiver Reggie Gray, a product of Chicago's Morgan park High School and Western Illinois University, has been a focal point of the offense for the last two seasons. But this year he'll be catching passes from a new quarterback, 6-foot-3, 215-pound, Kansas State product Carson Coffman. Coffman's father, Paul, was a tight end in the NFL for 10 years (1978-87), including eight with the Green Bay Packers, the team he represented in the Pro Bowl three straight years (1982-84).
The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Gray led the Rush last season with 140 catches for 1,937 yards and 48 touchdowns. In just two seasons in Chicago, Gray has become the franchise's all-time leading receiver. As a Rush rookie in 2011, he caught 130 passes for 1,969 yards and 49 touchdowns and also returned 4 kickoffs for scores.
"It's going to be a learning process with another quarterback, but I'm ready for the challenge," Gray said. "We have a lot of veterans, so it should be an easy process. I wasn't here when they won the first championship (the 2006 Arena Bowl) so I want to be part of the next one."
The Rush defense features 6-foot-4, 250-pound linebacker Kelvin Morris, a third-year veteran who intercepted 5 passes last season and returned 4 of them for touchdowns.
Also returning is defensive back Jorrick Calvin, who had a team-high 6 interceptions in just four games last season, joining the Rush in Week 15 after being cut by the New Orleans Voodoo.
"We have a better chance this year," Calvin said. "We have a lot of veterans in the secondary and some veteran rushers."
Among the pass rushers are former Glenbard East High School and University of Illinois defensive lineman Derek Walker. The 6-foot-4, 290-pound Walker has spent time in the NFL with the Bears, Redskins, Seahawks and 49ers.
Another former Bears player, 6-foot-5, 340-pound Steve Edwards, helps anchor the offensive line along with Villa Park's 6-foot-4, 325-pound Colin Madison, a Willowbrook High School graduate who played at Temple. Edwards spent four seasons (2002-05) with the Bears and started 24 games under Dick Jauron and Lovie Smith.
Edwards is one of 12 new players on the 21-man roster, a not-uncommon rate of turnover in Arena Football.
McMillen, who played football at Immaculate Conception High School in Elmhurst, College of DuPage and Illinois Benedictine, is confident he's got the right blend to succeed.
"It's always a challenge when you bring in new players," he said. "The most important thing is finding character guys who will be great on the field and off the field. They want to play as one; they want to play as a family and win a championship.
"We've built a great team around character guys and veterans. I believe we're stacked, and we have the ability to go out and win a championship."
• Follow Bob's NFL reports on Twitter @BobLeGere, and check out his Bear Essentials blog at dailyherald.com/sports.