DENVER (AP) – A month ago, prosecutors dropped a second-degree assault charge against a former University of Northern Colorado backup punter accused of stabbing the starter in his kicking leg, saying they needed more time to investigate.

On Thursday, they filed an attempted first-degree murder charge.

Mitchell Cozad could be sentenced to up to 48 years in prison if convicted of the attempted-murder charge, as well as a second charge of second-degree assault, the Weld County district attorney’s office said.

District attorney’s spokeswoman Jennifer Finch said a warrant had been issued for Cozad’s arrest, but he was not yet in custody. She did not know where he was but said his bail would be set at $500,000.

Cozad, 21, of Wheatland, Wyo., is accused of stabbing Rafael Mendoza in his right thigh on Sept. 11 outside his apartment in Evans, a small town adjacent to Greeley.

Arrested shortly after the attack, Cozad, who was suspended from the team and university, was released on bond.

“Based on the facts we’ve heard, it does sound a little over the top,” said Scott Robinson, a Denver defense attorney and legal analyst.

“If it appears he was trying to stab a rival in the leg – a la Tonya Harding – first-degree assault is the most serious charge that is provable,” he said.

But if prosecutors believe Mendoza had foiled an attempt on his life, the attempted-murder charge would be justified, he said.

Finch said that after their investigation, prosecutors felt the attempted murder and assault counts “were the appropriate charges.” She did not elaborate.

Police said Mendoza was attacked from behind after returning to his apartment complex from study hall. The assailant fled, but about 10 minutes later, a liquor store clerk told police that two men in a car matching the description of the getaway vehicle stopped, stripped tape off the license plate and drove away.

Police said they traced the license number “8-KIKR” to Cozad.

According to an arrest affidavit, Mendoza told police that four days before the attack, he saw a man who looked like the assailant watching him from the apartment parking lot. Worried, he quickly went inside.

Evans Police Lt. Gary Kessler said at the time the motive appeared to be rivalry over the starting job, prompting comparisons to the attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan by Harding’s hit man.

In mid-September, Kessler said witnesses had seen an alleged accomplice standing near the getaway car just after Mendoza was stabbed.

“He didn’t play a role in the assault, but he played a role in the crime,” Kessler said then.

Police never have announced a second arrest, and Kessler did not return a call Thursday.

Robinson said prosecutors might have filed the attempted-murder charge to pressure Cozad to identify the alleged accomplice or intimidate him into accepting a plea bargain.

Mendoza was treated for a 3- to 5-inch deep puncture wound in his right thigh and released. He has returned to the team but said this month he is struggling with flashbacks. “It’s been tough, and scary,” he said. “It’s hard for (my family), it’s hard for me, it’s hard for them wondering what’s going to happen. But I know they (authorities) are doing their job. They’re doing everything they possibly can to let justice run its course.”

He did not return a message Thursday and was not at practice because of an illness unrelated to his injury, UNC spokesman Eric Scott said.

“We support the Weld County DA’s office in their ongoing investigation,” coach Scott Downing said after practice, refusing to comment further. “We’re trying to focus on our game with Sacramento State next week.”

Associated Press Writer Dan Elliott contributed to this report.

AP-ES-10-19-06 2206EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.