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UTAH: REPORT CARD

Running backs coach Sean McNabb has been a Ute assistant for the past two decades. So when he says Utah's current crop of running backs is "the all-time best group we've had in 19 years" one must sit up and listen.

The Utes have had many talented backs during that time from Del Rodgers to Carl Monroe to Eddie Johnson. And while none of the current backs are that good - yet - the '95 talent level goes deeper than ever.So deep that the Utes aren't overly worried whether last year's starter Robert Hamilton will be granted another year of eligibility. He's currently awaiting a decision from the NCAA, something the Utes once thought was a sure thing.

Heading the list is fullback Henry Lusk, a sixth-year senior who sat out last year with a broken shoulder blade. But with so much depth in the backfield, Lusk may spend more time at the slotback and tight end positions.

Also back is sophomore Juan Johnson, who ran for more than 300 yards in his first five games before getting injured and seeing little action the rest of the year. Johnson has put on weight and gained strength in the offseason.

Two freshman running backs who have been impressive in two-a-day drills and expected to contribute heavily this year are Omar Bacon and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala.

Bacon is a 6-foot-1, 190-pounder from Tucson that the Utes stole from under the noses of the hometown Arizona Wildcats. Fuamatu-Ma'afala, who added the first four syllables to his name last week, is a Refrigerator Perry with speed. The 6-foot, 270-pounder was bulldozing through the defense last week before suffering a neck strain that has temporarily kept him out of action.

McNabb calls Bacon "everything I thought he'd be" and Fuamatu-Ma'afala "even better than I thought he'd be."

The Utes also recently learned that Teneil Ethridge, a highly-recruited back from two years ago, will be eligible to play this year. "He's a big-time back, who's been chomping at the bit to play," says McNabb of the speedster from San Diego.

Two problems could keep the Ute running back corps from excelling. With a young offensive line, the holes may not always be there. And if the Utes don't develop a decent passing attack, defenses may be able to concentrate on the running game.

"We are pretty doggone good, but we have the potential to be great," said McNabb.