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Tennis more than a diversion for 49ers’ Covington

Imagine the looks of the opposition when Jamal Covington – all 6-foot-4, 260 pounds of him – stepped onto the court as a varsity tennis player at Lovejoy High in Fayetteville, Ga.

“Total intimidation,” Covington said with a smile, relishing the memory. “My first serve was serious. And I loved slamming people at the net.”

Covington doesn’t play a lot of competitive tennis anymore. His focus is on football and being one of the anchors of Charlotte’s offensive line, where he likely will be the starting left tackle when the 49ers play their inaugural game Aug. 31 against Campbell.

But two years ago, as a senior at Lovejoy, Covington was looking for a way to stay in shape before heading to Charlotte. He’d started playing tennis the year before, so he tried out for the team. He ended up on the Wildcats’ No.1 doubles team.

“It was pretty remarkable,” said Covington. “It was a unique experience. But I had a ball doing it.”

One guy watching in amazement was 49ers offensive line coach Phil Ratliff, who had secured Covington’s commitment. Covington had been an all-state player on the Lovejoy football team that went 14-1 and finished runner-up in the state his senior season.

“I would have to say he’s the only offensive lineman I’ve ever recruited who also played tennis,” said Ratliff. “All I know is that I was once a fat offensive lineman, and I tried to play tennis back in college a few times. I didn’t want any part of it. There was too much lateral movement. So I knew Jamal had to be a special athlete to do that.”

Covington said playing tennis actually helped his lateral movement, something that is invaluable on the football field.

“Definitely the footwork, the lateral movement in tennis, works in football,” he said. “It’s all in how you move in pass protection, how you make the right steps. It’s helped me a lot.”

Covington has put on 35 pounds – he’s at 295 now – since arriving at Charlotte in 2012. It didn’t take long for him to win the left tackle job, one of the most important spots on the offensive line since that position protects the “blind side” of right-handed quarterback Matt Johnson.

“I’ve got to stay on my Ps and Qs,” said Covington, “because the quarterback can’t see what’s coming from my side. I’ve got to make sure I’m protecting him.”

Tennis isn’t Covington’s only activity away from football. He is an excellent alto saxophonist and was first chair in the band at Lovejoy. He also wants to be a meteorologist when he graduates, majoring in Environmental Science and hoping to work for the National Weather Service.

“I’ve always been involved in a lot of stuff,” said Covington, who still plays tennis occasionally. “The busier you are, the better off you are, that’s how I was raised.”

Notes

• Linebacker Mark Hogan has been slowed by a sore hamstring. Offensive lineman Danny Book missed another practice Tuesday because of a head injury. Receiver Will Thomas was back after tweaking an ankle Monday.

• Best catch of the day was a one-hander by H-back Peter Fields. Fields, a 6-6, 235 redshirt sophomore from Advance, started his college career at Division II Findlay (Ohio).

• Sometimes things can get tight on the practice fields, as they did when the defensive backs and linebackers were in interception drills next to each other. When two players nearly collided going for different balls, free safety Des Cooper visibly cringed.

Defensive backs coach James Adams wanted more space between the units.

“I told you I need 30 yards, coach!” Adams shouted to assistant secondary coach John Russell, who was working with the linebackers.

• Two potential starting linebackers are pretty good college baseball players, too. Redshirt junior Micah Bryan pitched for two seasons for the 49ers, not allowing an earned run in eight of his 13 appearances as a freshman. Mark Hogan, a graduate student transfer from Georgia State, hit .313 and had four homers in two seasons with the Panthers. Neither intends to play baseball again: Hogan doesn’t have any eligibility left and Bryan will focus on football for the next two seasons.

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