And that’s a wrap.
On Saturday at the Alamodome, the Charlotte football team concluded its fourth season, falling to Texas-San Antonio, 33-14. Just a week after their dream of earning a bowl bid in their second Football Bowl Subdivision season was dashed, the 49ers (4-8, 3-5 Conference USA) fell short of achieving their secondary goal of finishing .500 in conference play.
But that doesn’t take away from the strides the team made this season, in which it doubled its win total and won its first C-USA games.
5 takeaways from this season
After going 0-8 in Conference USA play a season ago, Charlotte finished fifth in the C-USA East Division and tied for eighth overall. Two of the 49ers’ three C-USA wins came on the road against conference powers Marshall and Southern Mississippi, making them the first C-USA team to defeat both teams on the road in the same season.
While Charlotte might not contend for a spot in the C-USA championship game next season, it proved it won’t be a pushover.
In their first FBS season, the 49ers averaged just 17.5 points per game, which ranked 119th in the country.
Charlotte finishes Year 2 ranked 95th nationally with 25.2 points per game — a sign that it’s adjusting to tougher defenses than those at the Football Championship Subdivision level.
Following the departures of starting safeties Branden Dozier and Devin Pearson, questions surrounded the 49ers’ defensive backfield entering this year.
Freshman Ben DeLuca and sophomore Ed Rolle solidified both positions, however, while finishing third and fifth on the team in tackles, respectively. The duo forms what could be a reliable defensive backline for the next two seasons.
Ogunjobi brings newfound attention:
Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi drew NFL scouts each week. The redshirt senior didn’t disappoint, finishing the year with a team-best 13.5 tackles-for-a-loss and three sacks. Ogunjobi’s success will likely earn him the distinction of being the first player in program history selected in the NFL Draft.
Cultivating a culture:
Throughout the final three weeks of the season, coach Brad Lambert and the 49ers’ seniors — including 19 fifth-year seniors who helped compose the school’s first recruiting class — reflected on how far the program has come since its inception.
Those seniors played a large role in that development, and they leave the team having helped establish a culture around the program.
5 things to watch next season
Have a Klugh:
Under the direction of Hasaan Klugh, Charlotte secured its first three C-USA wins. The North Carolina A&T transfer’s mobility proved to be his greatest asset, as he showed an ability to extend plays and scored eight rushing touchdowns.
Unlike in years past, there’s no concern about who the starting quarterback is heading into next season. The question is whether or not the coaching staff tinkers with the offense to fit Klugh’s strengths, and if so, how they do it.
Maintaining the ground game:
Kalif Phillips finishes his career as Charlotte’s all-time leading rusher with 4,020 yards on the ground. The 49ers, however, have a solid replacement in freshman Robert Washington.
The first four-star recruit in program history, Washington showed flashes of his potential throughout the year and led all running backs with five rushing scores.
Along with Klugh and freshman Ben Lemay, Washington will anchor the 49ers’ run-dependent offense. If he can’t, the team will be forced to rely on Klugh’s average arm.
Depth along the offensive line proved to be one of Charlotte’s greatest strengths this season. The 49ers, however, will lose three longtime starters, including stalwart offensive tackle Jamal Covington, as well as valuable backup Jarred Barr to graduation.
Charlotte will welcome back Nate Davis, Eugene German and Chris Brown. But finding the right combination of starters along the offensive line will be one of the team’s top priorities this offseason.
Finding an heir:
With 59 catches for 803 receiving yards, senior receiver Austin Duke accounted for a majority of the 49ers’ offense through the air. His departure leaves questions about who will step up in the receiving corps.
Redshirt sophomore Workpeh Kofa, who led the team with five touchdown receptions, could see a more significant role in the offense. Charlotte also has earned commitments from five receivers, at least one of which could compete for Duke’s role in the slot.
Before losing by 19 points to UTSA, the 49ers’ previous three losses had been by a combined nine points, a number further magnified with the team falling two wins shy of bowl eligibility.
How the players and coaching staff respond in similar situations next year could be instrumental in whether or not Charlotte reaches a bowl game in its fifth season.