Hasaan Klugh is late. It’s just practice, but that isn’t normal for him – not for the Charlotte 49ers’ starting quarterback, not for the lynchpin of the offense, and definitely not for the man expected to lead a five-year-old football program to its first bowl game.
Here he comes, finally, bounding through the parking lot next to the team’s practice fields. He’s wearing a black Nike headband, his hair poking over the sides of it, and a red “no contact” jersey. That uniform is fine for now, in one of the team’s final preseason practices, but come Charlotte’s season opener Friday night at Eastern Michigan, Klugh will draw the Eagles’ defensive attention.
He’ll be asked to take hits running the football, and he’ll be asked to take hits throwing the football, and then he’ll be asked to stand back up and do it again. Really, Klugh will be asked to do everything for the 49ers’ offense.
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“Having him as the guy helps a lot,” wide receiver TL Ford said. “I think that’ll be the factor that gets us over the hump this year.”
For as important as Klugh is to this team, there’s only one thing the redshirt junior won’t do: admit he’s the key to the program making a bowl for the first time.
“I ain’t gonna say I’m the key to it,” Klugh said Tuesday. “We have some great players that are stepping up right now. Our wide receivers, our D-line, they’re gonna be the key to making it to a bowl game. Not me.”
‘I had to get better’
Klugh was never forced to play football growing up, but it would have been shocking if he hadn’t.
As the youngest of five brothers who played football, it was impossible for Klugh to ignore the pull of the sport. He’d watch their games, and when he eventually made it to Central Cabarrus High in nearby Concord, he emulated them.
Klugh finished his high school career with 2,387 total yards and 34 touchdowns, 11 of which came on the ground. But for as talented a runner as he was, Klugh was also adept as a passer. That duality comes from watching two polar opposite professional quarterbacks growing up.
“My favorite player overall is Michael Vick,” Klugh says. “But also I really love seeing Tom Brady play. Vick had a strong arm and brought the athleticism to the quarterback position. ...But Brady’s a competitor, such a clutch guy. That’s really who I look up to.”
The success Klugh had at Central Cabarrus led him to N.C. A&T, where he continued his growth on the field. As a freshman in 2014, he started three games and played in another four. But after the season, Klugh weighed his options for the future and realized he wasn’t where he wanted to be.
“One of the biggest decisions of my life,” Klugh said of transferring to Charlotte. “Here’s closer to home, playing in front of your family and friends … that’s an amazing feeling.”
After redshirting the 2015 season because of NCAA transfer rules, Klugh entered the 2016 campaign looking to start. The problem was that Kevin Olsen, the younger brother of Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, was determined to do the same. The two battled throughout last offseason, but Olsen was eventually named the starter. Klugh settled into his role as backup, preparing and waiting for his chance to play.
That time came sooner than he might have expected. Olsen struggled from the start, and in the team’s sixth game - with a 1-4 record - Lambert benched him for Klugh.
The turnaround was immediate. Klugh started the 49ers’ final seven games and led the program to its first three Conference USA wins. His combination of running and passing made him a nightmare for defenses, and the stats reflect it. Klugh ended the season with 1,782 total yards and 18 touchdowns.
For his performance, he was named the team’s offensive MVP.
“It pushed me, made me realize I had to get better,” Klugh said of not starting. “I had to step up. It’s an amazing process that you go through. You’ve just got to stick it out.”
Bowl or bust?
Klugh’s inspiring relief performance aside, Charlotte was unable to overcome its poor start to the season and failed to qualify for a bowl. But that has become the program’s central goal for 2017.
Doing so won’t be easy, considering last year’s 4-8 team lost a pair of strong leaders and two of its most productive players. Receiver Austin Duke, an undrafted free agent, is trying to make the Carolina Panthers’ roster. Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, the first player from Charlotte drafted by an NFL team, was a third-round pick by Cleveland.
They’re gone and someone must fill their void.
Klugh assumed the mantle without hesitation, focusing his attention on building team chemistry on and off the field. As for football, that meant staying late after practice to throw with a stable of receivers.
“He’ll be out there playing catch with my son after practice,” coach Brad Lambert said. “He’s just that kind of person.
“He’s one of the hardest working guys we have, and the guys are naturally drawn to him.”
But the real fun came when those extra sessions ended. There were cookouts at various apartment complexes, pool parties, post-practice lunch trips. It was Klugh’s way of bonding with teammates.
“Our cheapest spot, and I guess that’s why it’s our favorite spot, would be Shoney’s,” Klugh said of the restaurant known for its buffet bar. “We always go to Shoney’s, get some good food in.
“The eggs with the cheese is probably the best thing. And bacon. Bacon’s a go-to.”
Back at practice, Klugh jogs onto the field past trainers and assistant coaches. His teammates are stretching and warming up, and they make sure to crack a joke or two at Klugh’s tardiness.
He smiles and takes it in stride as he skips past them and down the sideline. Then he picks up his pace, crosses the bridge between practice fields to join fellow quarterbacks, and he disappears from view.
After all, he is late and there’s so much work left to do.