Charlotte 49ers offensive line coach Phil Ratliff refers to his group of players as “the rock” of the team.
“We take pride in being the rock,” Ratliff said. “We want that pressure on us. We want to feel it in our room, because the rock is coming out every single day and working hard.”
Any offensive unit is going to be in decent shape if its line performs well. That was the case during Charlotte’s inaugural season of 2013, when the 49ers averaged 33.4 points and 448.5 yards. The line, with all five starters returning and more depth than it had a season ago, shouldn’t be anything but better.
“There are a lot of things we can improve,” sophomore center Thomas La Bianca said. “But just having that one year of experience under our belts, actually playing, makes so much difference, too.”
La Bianca, a 6-foot-3, 284-pounder out of Indian Trail’s Porter Ridge High, anchors that line, which also includes left tackle Jamal Covington, left guards Casey Perry and Mason Sledge, right guard Daniel Blitch and right tackle Danny Book. In addition to opening holes for running backs like Kalif Phillips (716 yards, 12 touchdowns), the line allowed just 10 sacks (a rate of .91 per game, which ranked 11th nationally).
Ratliff said this offensive line is the best he has coached during his 21-year career, which includes stops at Marshall and James Madison.
“It’s an easy group to coach,” Ratliff said. “As far as character, ability, work ethic, it’s the total package. And they get along so well together.”
Ratliff helps foster that. He and his wife Jenni hosted a pig picking at their Harrisburg home for the offensive line last summer (also inviting others, including quarterback Matt Johnson). Another feast is scheduled at the Ratliff household the week of Charlotte’s Aug. 28 opener at Campbell.
“When we’re away from the field, we’re joking around and having fun,” La Bianca said. “When it’s time to get back to the building, it’s all about business and being the hardest-working people we can be.”
The offensive line – along with the entire football program – also is building toward something: the conversion next season from the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision and Conference USA.
“They’re going to be around for a while, so that’s going to help us,” Ratliff said.
The 49ers used the offseason to hit the weight room, with successful results. Blitch gained 20 pounds and now is at 348. Perry, who signed as a defensive lineman two years ago, is down to 327 pounds after weighing as much as 350 one season ago. Book gained eight pounds to get to 283.
“They’re hungry; they’re anxious to get out there every day,” Ratliff said. “But they don’t feel like they’ve arrived. They’ll be in the film room and laugh at themselves – ‘Hey coach, look at how much better I can do this now!’ ”
• The 49ers, who have been practicing in pads since Sunday, are nursing a few minor injuries. H-back Justin Bolus (shoulder) and linebacker Nick Cook (hamstring) shouldn’t be out long.
• Practice shifts from early mornings to the afternoon Wednesday, when the 49ers will go from 4:30 to 6 p.m. With summer school over, two-a-days also are coming, beginning Friday. (9-11 a.m. and 4-6 p.m.).
• Coach Brad Lambert said the loud music that pumps from speakers during practice helps the players communicate.
“The kids are used to it and the pace of practice stays up, vs. when it’s quiet,” he said. “It’s hard on the coaches, especially when I’m down where that speaker is.”
Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14
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