Charlotte is the newest member of the FBS ranks, and the 49ers join Conference USA after winning 10 games over the last two seasons under coach Brad Lambert. Charlotte has a ways to go before competing for a bowl game or a conference title, but the 49ers should score plenty of points in 2015 behind running back Kalif Phillips and receiver Austin Duke.
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Previewing Charlotte’s Offense for 2015
The master plan for Charlotte’s young football program was to have its first generation of players come of age at the same time. As the 49ers enter their third season of existence and first in Conference USA, that plan should start paying off as most key offensive players return to a quick-strike offense that had 22 touchdown drives of 90 seconds or less last season.
Junior running back Kalif Phillips is coming off a 1,436-yard season and should again have a prominent role. He’ll have the luxury of an offensive line that brings back plenty of experience. Charlotte’s top two receivers, Austin Duke and Trent Bostick, also return, headlining a talented group that also includes Georgia transfer and former four-star recruit Uriah LeMay.
While much of the offense is settled, things should be interesting at quarterback. Matt Johnson started eight games last season before tearing his MCL. After he went out, Lee McNeill stepped in and helped lead the 49ers to two victories. Both players will be juniors this season and should be pushed by redshirt freshman Brooks Barden.
“I just feel like we’ve got a lot of pieces,” says Charlotte coach Brad Lambert, who served on Jim Grobe’s staff at Wake Forest for 10 years.
Previewing Charlotte’s Defense for 2015
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After giving up 31.6 points per game last season, Lambert turned to former Texas Tech defensive coordinator — and his old college roommate — Matt Wallerstedt to fix a shaky defense. Wallerstedt, who says he’ll keep the 49ers’ 3-4 scheme, inherits a defense that has some talent but little depth.
Lambert says he’s happy with the options along the defensive front. After missing last season, Devon Johnson will join last season’s sack leader Larry Ogunjobi on the line. Syracuse transfer Josh Manley should also be a factor.
Elsewhere on defense, there are questions. Nick Cook and Caleb Clayton-Molby will anchor the linebacking corps after both missed chunks of last season due to injury. Branden Dozier, last season’s leading tackler, and Devin Pearson will be proven options in the defensive backfield. But Lambert says that developing talent to put around these standouts will be the top priority heading into the preseason.
Previewing Charlotte’s Specialists for 2015
Kicker Blake Brewer and punter Arthur Hart are back and should keep their spots. Chris Montgomery, Corey Nesmith, Damarrell Alexander and Ardy Holmes all had roles in the return game last season and should be in the mix again.
Charlotte football has gone from an idea to a fully operational FBS program at warp speed. After two seasons as an FCS competitor, the enormity of the challenge it faces this season could show. This will be the 49ers’ first season with the full complement of 85 scholarship players. So while they’ll have talent, much of it will be young and untested against the level of competition it’s getting ready to face.
Also, up until now, Charlotte has eased into things with regard to scheduling. Previous slates were made up of FCS and Division II schools. This season, 11 of the team’s 12 games will be against FBS competition. In addition to Conference USA foes, the 49ers will face Temple and Kentucky.
Coming off of back-to-back 5–6 seasons, Charlotte has shown that, while it has room to improve, it’s not that far behind the learning curve. With the competition ratcheted up significantly this season, the 49ers hope to continue to show gradual improvement. Being competitive with Conference USA’s middle tier would be a sign that, despite the accelerated pace of progress, the program is right on schedule.