One season ago, the Charlotte 49ers were 2-0 after beating a pair of over-matched opponents.
Then came N.C. Central. The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s Eagles beat the 49ers 40-13 the following week, handing Charlotte its first loss in program history and giving the 49ers a taste of what Division I football really is like.
The scenario is similar this week. Charlotte has won its first two games – against non-scholarship Campbell (33-9) and Division II Johnson C. Smith (56-0) – with Saturday’s game at N.C. Central (1-1) looming.
“We’re a year older, our guys are another year more mature,” 49ers coach Brad Lambert said Tuesday. “We were coming off two wins last year and playing our first full-scholarship (Football Championship Subdivision) team and were stepping up another level. That’s no different this week.”
There were plenty of lessons to be learned for the 49ers, whose starting lineup last season was dominated by freshmen or redshirt freshmen. Charlotte didn’t take care of the ball (seven turnovers) and was undone by big plays by the Eagles (a 100-yard kickoff return and 46-yard interception return, both for touchdowns).
“I was really flustered that game,” said quarterback Matt Johnson, who threw five interceptions. “Too much playmaking and not enough letting guys play their game. But we’ve got a completely different team than last year.”
The 49ers still are young, but all of those freshmen now are sophomores. Three seniors – offensive guard Daniel Blitch, linebacker Caleb Clayton-Molby and safety Desmond Cooper – are in the starting lineup.
Two players who really hurt the 49ers last season are back for the Eagles, who lost their season opener at East Carolina 52-7 before beating Division II Elizabeth City State 34-7 last week. Receiver Adrian Wilkins returned returned a kickoff 100 yards for a score and also caught five passes for 83 yards against Charlotte. Cornerback Michael Jones had two of those interceptions.
“We’ve got to play better than last year, obviously,” Lambert said.
• N.C. Central defensive end Felix Small is the MEAC’s defensive player of the week after he had six tackles (five unassisted), two for a loss and one forced fumble against the CIAA’s Elizabeth City State.
• N.C. Central quarterback Quinn Billerman is the son of former 49ers men’s basketball assistant Kevin Billerman. Quinn, a junior transfer from New Mexico Military Institute, has completed 31 of 47 passes for 266 yards and a touchdown. Kevin Billerman, a former Duke basketball player, is the boys’ basketball coach at Raleigh Ravenscroft.
• 49ers center Thomas La Bianca, who missed the opener against Campbell with a knee injury, didn’t play against Johnson C. Smith as a precaution. He’s expected back against N.C. Central.
• The 49ers finished high in several FCS statistical categories in 2013, but that won’t be the case this season. Charlotte, which along with Appalachian State, Georgia State and Old Dominion is transitioning to the Football Bowl Subdivision, isn’t eligible to be included in the NCAA’s stats. In fact, the four schools are listed at the bottom and separately from the 124 FBS programs in each team category.
• So, unofficially, 49ers running back Kalif Phillips’ six rushing touchdowns leads both FCS and FBS.