The Charlotte 49ers begin preseason football camp Wednesday. Here are five storylines to follow as the 49ers prepare for their second season of football:
A hint of the future: Sophomore Matt Johnson is entrenched as the starting quarterback as Charlotte plays one final season as an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision independent. But Johnson’s heir apparent has been on campus since January. Freshman Brooks Barden likely will redshirt this season (Lee McNeill will back up Johnson), but Barden is being groomed to eventually take over as Charlotte’s signal caller. Barden, a left-hander who had interest from Louisville during his high school career in Cartersville, Ga., is probably talented enough to compete for the starting spot next season.
Tough up front: Coach Brad Lambert says the team’s strength this season will be on the offensive line. A group that helped Charlotte average 33.4 points and 448.5 yards per game last season returns in tact: sophomore left tackle Jamal Covington, sophomore left guard Mason Sledge, sophomore center Thomas La Bianca, senior right guard Daniel Blitch and junior right tackle Danny Book.
Redshirt decisions: Lambert will look closely at the running back and wide receiver positions to see if he can redshirt leading rusher Kalif Phillips (doubtful) and deep threat Trent Bostick (possible, not likely). Both played key roles as true freshmen last season, and Lambert was hoping to redshirt them this season so they would have three years of eligibility when Charlotte moves into Conference USA and the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2015. But unexpected losses at both those positions during the offseason mean that plan is in doubt. Other possibilities to redshirt after playing as true freshmen last season: linebacker Justin Bridges-Thompson and defensive back Devin Pearson.
New faces: The 49ers have 16 starters back, so there won’t be many changes. But Lambert has talked a lot about two junior college transfers – linebacker Nick Cook and H-back Richard Murphy – whom he expects to quickly contribute. They will replace two key players who graduated – linebacker Mark Hogan and H-back C.J. Crawford.
Defensive leader: Hogan, who scored Charlotte’s first-ever touchdown on an interception against Campbell last season, was the 49ers’ defensive emotional leader in 2013. Lambert expects that role to go to senior linebacker Caleb Clayton-Molby this season.
• Preseason practices will run from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. for the first few weeks. They will shift to later in the day as Charlotte’s opener at Campbell on Aug. 28 draws nearer, the better to acclimate the team to the heat that will come during the 7 p.m. start.
• Mikel Hunter, one of Charlotte’s leading receivers last season, has joined the coaching staff as a graduate assistant. He takes the place of Stanley Arnoux, who decided not to take a position on the staff. Hunter started all 11 games last season, catching 45 passes for 551 yards and two touchdowns. He returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown against Chowan.
Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14
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