Charlotte's maiden voyage in FBS went about as expected, as the 49ers went 2-10 and winless (0-8) in Conference USA play. There is plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the ball, and progress should be made with 16 starters returning. But can the 49ers make enough in the one category that counts to get to a bowl game in their first year of eligibility?
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Previewing Charlotte’s Offense for 2016
After last season’s quarterbacks combined to throw 23 interceptions — versus just 12 touchdowns — 49ers coach Brad Lambert and his staff decided to hit reset. Senior Matt Johnson, the four-year old program’s all-time leading passer, was shifted to running back, allowing an array of other signal callers a shot at the starting gig. Junior college pickup Kevin Olsen, the younger brother of Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, ended up winning a busy competition in the spring that included veteran Brooks Barden, North Carolina A&T transfer Hasaan Klugh and East Carolina transfer Cody Keith. Barden, though, missed much of the spring with a broken collarbone.
Olsen will have some help. Senior running back Kalif Phillips will again play a featured role in the offense. The All-Conference-USA second teamer racked up 961 rushing yards last season despite missing most of the final three games with an injured knee. There will also be no shortage of proven targets in the passing game as senior receivers Trent Bostick and Austin Duke and junior T.L. Ford combined to register 1,253 yards and eight touchdowns last season.
The offensive line returns four starters, including a 2015 Conference-USA All-Freshman Team selection in right guard Nate Davis, but Lambert says that one of the offseason’s top priorities has been to build depth up front. Despite the questions at quarterback, after Charlotte’s offense averaged just 17.5 points per game, the experience that comes along with having eight returning starters should translate into improvement.
Previewing Charlotte’s Defense for 2016
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Of the eight starters returning on defense, nose tackle Larry Ogunjobi will likely concern opposing offenses the most. An All-Conference USA second-team selection last season, the 6-3, 294-pounder notched 14.5 tackles for a loss in 2015 and has started every game in Charlotte football history. He’ll be flanked by a pair of ends in Zach Duncan and Brandon Banks who started a combined 18 games last season.
Nick Cook, last season’s leading tackler, will be back at inside linebacker alongside outside backer and fellow senior Daquan Lucas, who made 10 tackles for a loss last season. With two senior starters back, cornerback should also be a strong spot. Tank Norman, who accounted for 51 tackles last season, and Terrance Winchester, who picked off four passes, will reprise their roles. The questions come at safety, where Devin Pearson is the lone proven option.
Previewing Charlotte’s Specialists for 2016
Blake Brewer’s 56-yard field goal was the league’s longest last season. But after Brewer hit only 51.9 percent of his attempts, Lambert says he’d like to see a little more consistency. Junior Arthur Hart is a proven performer at punter after landing 20 punts inside the 20-yard line and unleashing a 66-yarder last season.
The 49ers’ football program went about the transition from idea to actual functioning FBS team at a head-spinning pace. And last season, it showed. After two five-win seasons as an FCS Independent, Charlotte’s first season on the FBS level yielded only two victories. Lambert says that, for his players, the experience was eye-opening and served as motivation during the offseason.
Another driving factor comes from the roughly 20 players who were there when the program began. This season marks the first that the 49ers are eligible for a bowl. While they return 16 starters, showing enough improvement to get to six wins — especially with non-conference road trips to Louisville and Temple — will be a tall order. But since they’re already used to doing things at warp speed, the core group of original 49ers aren’t shying away from setting that as the goal.