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UTAH: MCCOY EMERGES TO PROVIDE OUTSTANDING LEADERSHIP.

SHARE UTAH: MCCOY EMERGES TO PROVIDE OUTSTANDING LEADERSHIP.

It took until the second half of last season for the real Mike McCoy to finally emerge.

The Ute quarterback had to live down an embarrassing loss to UTEP in his first start in 1992 when he was filling in for injured Frank Dolce, along with a pair of home losses to Idaho and New Mexico early last season.But McCoy found his stride in the middle of the year, ironically beginning with the game against UTEP. From that point on, he was nearly flawless in leading the Utes to five wins in their final six regular-season games. It's hard to imagine a better quarterback in the country during that stretch.

In those last six games, McCoy completed 70 percent of his passes for 2,442 yards (407 per game), 14 touchdowns with just five interceptions. McCoy ended up No. 2 in the nation in total offense with 3,969 yards and earned Sports Illustrated Player of the Week honors for his performance against Air Force.

Ask Ute coach Ron McBride about McCoy and he won't even mention his strong, accurate arm or his uncanny ability to avoid sacks.

"Mike is a great leader," said McBride. "He leads by example. He understands the game and how to make the play. He's a tough kid. I'm very high on Mike McCoy."

Despite all the success late last season, a question mark hung over McCoy's head as he came into fall practice last week. Midway through spring practice, McCoy underwent surgery to correct a pinched blood vessel in his throwing shoulder.

"It went exactly as planned," said McCoy. "I've even surprised myself with my velocity and strength. My doctor said by my first game, I'll be as strong as ever."

McCoy's health is vital to the team because there is absolutely no experience behind him.

Ryan Shea, who recruited himself from Minnesota by sending Ute coaches a tape, was the backup last year as a redshirt freshman and the likely No. 2 man this year. He has the strongest arm on the team and looks to be the Ute quarterback of the future.

However, McBride says Brandon Jones, a walk-on out of Snow College and North Summit High, is pushing Shea for backup duties and JC transfer Mike Fouts, a nephew of Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, has looked good in the early going.

If McCoy stays healthy all year, the quarterback position could be one of the strong points of the team and the Utes could challenge for the Holiday Bowl (in fact, the Utes would get an "A" grade at quarterback if McCoy had more experienced backups). However, with zero experience behind McCoy, an injury to the main man could send the Utes reeling back to mediocrity.