The Charlotte 49ers are four weeks away from opening their third season as an FBS member, traveling to Eastern Michigan in their 2017 kickoff.
The 49ers, who opened practice last Saturday evening, are coming off a season of accomplishments – their first Conference USA victories, a brief run at a bowl berth, and the postseason honor of seeing defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi picked by Cleveland in the third round of the NFL draft.
But a pair of one-point losses and late-season slide prevented the 49ers from becoming bowl eligible. Instead, they finished 4-8.
“Our guys understand how close we were last year,” said Brad Lambert, entering his fifth season as coach. “We’ve been working hard since January. These guys know they had to work a little harder this year.”
With practice under way, here are three things we know about the 2017 version of the 49ers – and three things we don’t.
3 things we know
There’s an established quarterback:
Hassan Klugh, a Central Cabarrus High graduate and a transfer from N.C. A&T, became a starter midway through last season. He had 10 touchdown passes to three interceptions, threw for 1,356 yards and rushed for another 426.
“I’ve been working on staying in the pocket better,” said Klugh, when asked what he must improve. “I’ve been working a lot on my drop-back (passing) game.”
The 49ers were 3-4 with Klugh starting last year. Settling on a starter at quarterback had been a problem for Charlotte the previous two seasons.
Offensive line is strong:
Three talented starters are gone, but the 49ers return solid linemen in Chris Brown, Nate Davis and Eugene German, along with two junior-college transfers and some highly regarded freshmen.
Several other reserves, including senior Wolfgang Zacherl and juniors Darren Drake and Jamar Winston, add depth.
Outsiders’ expectations are low:
The 49ers are picked to finish last in Conference USA East. Defending league champion Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee and Old Dominion are expected to be strong again, and the two C-USA Florida schools have big-name coaches – Butch Davis at Florida International and Lane Kiffin at Florida Atlantic. The other East school, Marshall, is expected to be improved.
“We have no control over that,” Lambert said of predictions. “That’s what other people think. We can use that to help motivate us.”
3 things we don’t know
How will the defensive line fare?
Ogunjobi and Brandon Banks (signed by Washington) are gone, and that leaves two big holes. The line is being rebuilt around Nick Carroll and Zach Duncan, who led Charlotte in sacks two years ago with four.
“We lost a lot of production on the defensive line,” Lambert said. “And we were missing a couple people on the defensive line in spring practice (because of injuries).”
Who will replaces Kalif?
Kalif Phillips set most of the 49ers’ rushing records but is now trying to land a spot on the Green Bay Packers’ roster. Lambert said former Southlake Christian and East Gaston standout Robert Washington – the 49ers’ only four-star recruit to date – and former Butler High standout Benny LeMay must step up.
“We really feel good about Benny and Robert moving in,” Lambert said.
Both showed flashes last year, with Washington running 58 yards for a touchdown against Southern Mississippi and LeMay recording a 44-yard run against Elon.
Finding a kicker
Blake Brewer, who handled most of the 49ers’ place-kicking duties the past four years, has graduated. Charlotte Christian’s Jackson Vansickle and Kyle Corbett split kicking duties in spring drills, but N.C. Central transfer Nigel Macauley is also in the mix.
Four of the 49ers’ games were decided by a touchdown or less last year, including two one-point losses. Lambert hopes to find someone on the roster who will be reliable on game-winning field goal tries.