Most of the Charlotte 49ers’ starting spots are nailed down for this season. But there are six positions – three on offense, three on defense – where new players will be in the starting lineup.
The number of replacements might have been smaller, but three starters from 2013 – running back Alan Barnwell, linebacker Terry Caldwell and safety Martay Mattox – were thrown off the team for various rules violations. The other three – receiver Mikel Hunter, H-back C.J. Crawford and linebacker Mark Hogan – graduated.
Here are the six likely new starters (some are familiar names, some are not):
Running back: Sophomore Kalif Phillips is a bruising, fast runner out of Kannapolis Brown High. Phillips became Charlotte’s strongest runner during the second half of last season and ended up leading the 49ers in rushing (716 yards) and touchdowns (12 rushing, one receiving). Phillips likely would have redshirted this season had Barnwell remained on the team, allowing him three seasons (instead of two) of eligibility when the 49ers begin play in Conference USA in 2015.
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H-back: Sophomore Justin Bolus saw plenty of action last season (12 receptions for 156 yards and a touchdown) behind Crawford, so he’s ready to step in as a starter. He has plenty of size (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) for the position, which is a tight end-fullback hybrid. He’ll be backed up by junior college transfer Richard Murphy. Bolus has been slowed during the preseason by a shoulder injury, as has Murphy with a hamstring.
Receiver: Senior Demarjai Devine (6-3, 210) will give the 49ers another big receiver opposite Trent Bostick. Devine impressed coaches during the summer, as well as thus far during the preseason. There’s plenty of competition at this position from players such as EJ Rhinehart and true freshmen T.L. Ford, Workpeh Kofa and Juwan Foggie. Ideally, Lambert would redshirt the true freshmen.
Outside linebacker: Sophomore Jalen Holt got in six games last season, making eight tackles (four solo). Tall (6-4) and rangy, he stepped in after Mark Pettit was switched from linebacker to defensive end when Devon Johnson injured his Achilles last season.
Inside linebacker: Junior Nick Cook will team with returning-starter Caleb Clayton-Molby on the inside. Cook should become one of the defense’s emotional leaders and brings experience from two seasons at Butler (Kan.) Community College, where he had 58 tackles (33 solo) and 2.5 sacks in 2013. He’s been limited with a hamstring injury during the preseason.
Safety: Junior Ardy Holmes, a West Charlotte High product, played a lot in 2013 after transferring to Charlotte from Marshall. He started six games and was a key reason why the 49ers were one of the country’s best at forcing turnovers – he had an interception, a forced fumble and fumble recovery.
There will also be a change on the offensive line at left guard, where sophomore Casey Perry has overtaken versatile sophomore Mason Sledge. Perry, who came to Charlotte as a defensive lineman, did start four games last season, one at left guard. Sledge will be a valuable fill-in this season: he started at center and both guard positions in 2013.