Passing sensation Scott Mitchell is back and, presumably, on his feet after scaring 10 years out of his coach's life. With everyone keeping a careful eye on Mitchell's right ankle, the University of Utah opens spring football drills Thursday at Rice Stadium.

Sessions will be held Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at 3:30 p.m. on the practice field northeast of the Huntsman Center. If weather is poor, the Utes will work out at Rice Stadium. Drills will culminate with the annual Red-White game April 29 at 2 p.m.Mitchell, who set 10 NCAA offensive marks last year and led the country in total offense, will be used judiciously during the month of practice. He went down with a severe ankle sprain while playing in a church basketball game last January, and coaches aren't about to take chances. Coach Jim Fassel learned of Mitchell's injury when the star player phoned him from the hospital.

Mitchell was diagnosed as having a grade 3 ligament tear, or a severe sprain. He spent three weeks on crutches and at least two more hobbling around gingerly on the bad foot. "A bad sprain at the right time of the year and a player can be out the rest of the season," said Fassel. "If that happened at the start of a season, he could miss three-fourths of that year."

Fassel said that although Mitchell will be around for spring drills, he won't be taking any punishment. "We'll go easy on him for the first week or so and see how he's feeling," said Fassel. "He'll be able to do some individual work. But we'll keep him out of live contact stuff and away from any situation where someone could fall on him. Of course, we won't ever have him taking much contact in the spring."

One priority for the Utes will be getting some experience for Mitchell's backups. Those waiting in the wings are Andy Emch, Mike Richmond and Paul Barton. None of the three have significant playing time. Richmond was Mitchell's backup last year while Barton redshirted.

Utah is hoping to carry a rousing finish over to next season. The Utes were perfect in November, finishing with a 57-28 win over BYU in the season finale. But improving on their 6-5 record would be a major accomplishment. Utah's non-conference opposition next year includes road games at Fresno State, Nebraska and Stanford. And virtually all the best WAC teams will be road games for the Utes - Wyoming, BYU, UTEP and Hawaii.

However, the cupboard isn't bare. Thirteen starters are back besides Mitchell. Among the offensive players returning are all-WAC tight end Dennis Smith, linemen Jeff Parson, Todd Eldredge and Mike DeHoog.

Fassel said his top priorities are finding new receivers and safeties. Replacing Carl Harry and Aaron Grimm, who combined for 120 catches a year ago, will be a considerable order. But lettermen Cedric Riles (11 catches) and Mike Connaughton (three catches) have decent experience. The Utes also signed JC transfer Gordon Brooks, who could step in quickly.

Defensively, Utah must fill the void left by longtime starters Eric Jacobsen and Greg Smith at safety. Letterman Eric Wheelwright, who missed last season with a shoulder injury, and Tyger Williams, who saw solid playing time a year ago, are back. Also returning is promising sophomore Derrick Odum.

The Utes picked up major help at linebacker in the off-season by signing JC All-Americas Howard Reeve and Lance Salley.

Defensive starters back include linebacker Garland Harris, cornerbacks LaVon Edwards and Sean Knox, linebackers Darren Patterson and Frank Bonafacio, defensive end Joe Clausi and linemen Sam Tausinga and Greg Reynolds.