Of all the challenges facing the Utah football team in recent years, it has never had a challenge like this - trying to equal or top the success of the 1994 team.

That's the task facing coach Ron McBride and his Utes as they open spring practice Saturday. Spring drills will run most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays through April 29 at the McCarthey practice field on Guardsman Way.The Utes are coming off their most successful season in history, a 10-2 record that included a Freedom Bowl win over Arizona and a final Top 10 ranking for the first time in school history. On paper, this coming season looks somewhat bleak for Utah, which must replace 16 starters, including such standouts as All-American Luther Elliss, quarterback Mike McCoy, running back Charlie Brown and linebacker Mark Rexford.

"It's going to be tough to duplicate and repeat last year's success," said McBride, who earlier this week signed a new five-year contract. "But I like the signs of this football team."

On the positive side, the Utes return 38 lettermen, several redshirt players and some of the top recruits in school history.

McBride acknowledges that one of the top priorites of spring practice will be developing a quarterback to replace McCoy. The Utes felt good enough about their returning signal-callers that they didn't go after any junior college QBs.

The three candidates vying for the quarterback spot are juniors Brandon Jones and Mike Fouts and sophomore Ryan Shea. Jones, who played for North Summit High and Snow College, was the backup to McCoy last year, while Shea, who hails from Glenwood, Minn., was the backup in 1993. Fouts transferred from Saddleback JC and sat out last year as a redshirt.

Among the starters back on offense are tackle Chris Rae, tight end Rick Tucker and receiver/fullback Henry Lusk, a two-year starter who was injured just before the start of last season. Also back are receiver Kevin Dyson, who caught the winning pass in the Freedom Bowl, running back Juan Johnson and receiver David Kozlowski.

On the defensive side, the Kaufusi brothers, Jeff and Henry, return as starters on the line, along with defensive backs Jeff Kirkman and Harold Lusk. And don't forget Cal Beck, the hero of the BYU and Arizona games. Beck, who will continue to handle kickoff returns, may move into a starting spot in the defensive backfield.

Besides losing may key players, the Utes have also had to replace their offensive and defensive coordinators. Longtime Ute coach Fred Graves takes over for Rick Rasnick as the offensive coordinator, while Kyle Whittingham replaces his father Fred Whittingham as the defensive coordinator. Tommy Lee has joined the staff as the quarterback coach and Steve Kaufusi has moved up to become defensive line coach.

"This year's team will be a big challenge," said McBride. "This is going to have to be our best job ever of coaching."

Another positive for the Utes in 1995 is their schedule, one of the most favorable in years with a record seven home games. They start off with a pair of Pac-10 opponents in Oregon and Stanford, before opening the WAC season against New Mexico on the road. During the month of October, the Utes play all four games at home.