Charlotte 49ers linebacker Caleb Clayton-Molby says there’s no secret to forcing fumbles, a skill at which he’s become quite adept.
“You punch, you rip, you really get in there down in the pile,” said Clayton-Molby, a senior who forced four fumbles (at .4 per game, tied for third nationally) last season. “But it’s mostly about effort.”
Clayton-Molby is one of eight starters returning on a defense that as a unit was among the best in the country in turning the ball over. Charlotte ranked in the top 10 nationally in fumbles recovered (16) and takeaways (31) and was 25th in interceptions (15).
But all those turnovers couldn’t mask a deeper problem in the 49ers’ defense last season. Thin and inexperienced in its inaugural season, Charlotte allowed opponents 31.2 points and 439 yards per game, the main culprits in the 49ers’ 5-6 record.
And facing those numbers still stings.
“It’s a pride thing,” said Clayton-Molby, who transferred to Charlotte from Georgia Military College before last season. “You pull out last year’s film and you want to turn it off and not watch it. But the mistakes we made have been fixed. You watch it to keep that little taste of last year. But when you go over the stats and see how many yards teams made on us or how many points we let up, we know we got our butts kicked. We hate that.
“We’re a different animal now. Looking at last year, I know my game has changed from ground zero. There’s a whole change in their entire locker room.”
Clayton-Molby had 67 tackles last season, including two for a loss. He also recovered three fumbles and his one interception went for a 70-yard touchdown in a 61-17 season-closing victory at Morehead State.
He’s quickly taken on a leadership role for the 49ers, whose season opens Aug. 28 at Campbell. Clayton-Molby took a few teammates, including junior safety Branden Dozier, sophomore safety Ardy Holmes and junior linebacker Nick Cook, on a spring break trip to his hometown of Panama City, Fla.
“He led us,” said Holmes. “It was a good bonding experience.”
Cook is expected to start at one of the inside linebacker spots alongside Clayton-Molby. Sophomores Nico Alcalde and Jalen Holt have also been practicing with the first-team defense.
A transfer from Butler (Kan.) Community College, Cook is aware of the fixes that are necessary in the 49ers’ defense.
“The intensity and energy are already there,” said Cook. “I can already see an improvement on the practice field after watching film from last season. We’ve got people flying around out there. All it takes is that one little spark. That’s what it takes so you’re not allowing 50 points in a game anymore and you’re getting shutouts instead.”
• Defensive end Devon Johnson, who missed several games last season with an Achilles injury, is practicing. Lambert isn’t sure if Johnson will be ready for the season opener.
• The 49ers will practice with pads for the first time Friday. Charlotte’s first two days were played in helmets, T-shirts and shorts.
• It’s never quiet during a game in a stadium. That’s why the 49ers are practicing with music blaring from huge speakers located at the end of their practice fields.