Their absences were occasionally noted within the walls of the Judy W. Rose Football Center throughout January and February.
But when the Charlotte 49ers football team took the field at Jerry Richardson Stadium on Saturday for its first spring practice, the nonexistent presence of last year’s 27 seniors couldn’t go unnoticed.
That group included 19 players who helped compose Charlotte’s first recruiting class and establish the program’s foundation. And while the 49ers have never fielded a team without them, they started moving on Saturday with a sense of eagerness about what awaits.
“The room is just a lot different,” coach Brad Lambert said. “Every time the calendar turns, it’s a new year, it’s a new football team with a new challenge. I really like the guys we have, and I’m excited about the young guys in our program.”
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With a 4-5 record, Charlotte entered the final three weeks of last season needing just two wins to become bowl eligible in just its second Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) campaign. However, the 49ers dropped all three games, finishing with a 4-8 mark.
Some of the younger players said then that they had wished to reach a bowl game before the senior class departed. But now that it’s gone, Charlotte hopes to use last season’s disappointing finish as motivation.
“We’re happy for those guys who came in and started this program up,” said Hasaan Klugh, the rising redshirt junior quarterback. “But they taught us a lot about working hard. We’re just going to go out here and show what we’ve got.”
Klugh made his first start in the 49ers’ win over Florida Atlantic on Oct. 9, marking its first-ever Conference USA victory. He led the team to two more conference wins, using his mobility to extend plays and finish the season with a team-best eight rushing touchdowns.
Still, Klugh showed average arm strength and completed just 41.5 percent of his passes during the 49ers’ season-ending three-game losing streak.
Klugh said improving his deep ball and progression reads are a priority this spring. And as he has attempted to do all offseason, he said he hopes to continue growing as a leader.
“He’s not a real vocal, loud guy, but he’s the hardest worker we have,” Lambert said. “He’s leading every day by the way he works … I’ve just really been pleased with Hasaan’s progress and how he’s done.”
Position battles to watch
The 49ers lost kicker Blake Brewer and long snapper Keaston Sinicki to graduation. Both players were mainstays at their respective positions, and Lambert said finding their replacements is a goal this spring.
The competition along the offensive and defensive lines will also be vital.
Three longtime starters on the offensive line, including stalwart offensive tackle Jamal Covington and valuable backup Jarred Barr graduated. On the other side of the ball, Charlotte will be without Brandon Banks, Tanner Fleming and Larry Ogunjobi, the program’s all-time leading tackler.
“A lot of plays walked out the door, so that young D-line has got a lot of work to do this spring,” Lambert said. “We’re going to push on those guys pretty hard.”