One characteristic of the Charlotte 49ers’ transitional season into the NCAA College Bowl Subdivision is their absence among the Football Championship Subdivision’s statistics.
The 49ers are listed elsewhere in the stats, but only in a separate FBS category along with other transitional programs Old Dominion, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern.
That’s too bad for Charlotte’s Austin Duke, who leads the 49ers (3-4) into a game Saturday against James Madison (4-3) at Richardson Stadium and would be ranked near or at the top of several Division I receiving categories.
Duke’s 966 yards receiving would be first in FCS and is second in all of Division I behind West Virginia’s Kevin White (1,020). The same holds true of his receiving yards per game (138.0), which trails only White’s 145.7.
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Duke’s 8.0 catches per game would have him tied for third in FCS and his eight receiving touchdowns also has him in the top five in both Division I classifications.
“That’s a pretty big surprise,” Duke said earlier this week when informed of where his numbers would rank. “But I don’t want to make this about myself. It’s easier if I just come out and keep doing what I’m doing.”
Duke, a 5-foot-9, 160-pound sophomore out of Independence High, has been Charlotte’s go-to receiver in its one-plus seasons of football. He’s well ahead of his freshman pace of 62 catches for 727 yards and six touchdowns. He has five consecutive 100-yard-plus games this season, with at least one touchdown catch in each of them. He had the biggest game of his career against The Citadel two weeks ago, with 12 catches for 254 yards and four touchdowns (including one rushing).
“Above anything else, the experience he’s gaining is really paying off for him,” said 49ers receivers coach Joe Tereshinski. “In his first year in the college ranks, he was getting a feel for the game. Now he’s got a year under his belt, he has that certain feel for what he’s supposed to do and how to do it.”
Duke has moved around in Charlotte’s offensive formation, from one of two wideouts to a slot receiver, where he is spending much of his time this season. The 49ers take advantage of his speed on end-around run plays, which is how he scored against The Citadel.
That speed, which he inherited from his father, Bruce (an all-CIAA running back at Johnson C. Smith in the 1970s), is Duke’s best physical attribute. He’s broken program records for longest touchdown reception in each of Charlotte’s past three games (74 yards against Charleston Southern; 80 against Gardner-Webb; 84 against The Citadel).
“It’s hard to miss him when you throw it as hard as you can and he runs up under it,” said 49ers quarterback Matt Johnson. “He’s made me look good a few times. A couple of times I’ve thrown it to him behind the line of scrimmage and he’s taken it 80 yards. He opens up his gait and really starts running.”
The relationship between Duke and Johnson has grown strong over the years they’ve known each other. They first met each other at a summer football camp at Elon while they were in high school (Johnson went to Maiden High). They stuck together, doing one-on-one throwing drills. And this was before either of them had committed to play for Charlotte.
Duke recalls Johnson being demanding on him even at the camp. One day, Duke didn’t realize campers had been required to take off their helmets. So Johnson loudly reminded him.
“I’ve always had big respect for Matt,” Duke said. “When he tells me to do something I do it. I’m glad he told me to take off my helmet because I didn’t hear the coaches telling us to do that.”
The hole in Duke’s game now is his tendency to drop passes, something he’s improved on this season. He bobbled a pass that went for an interception on the first play from scrimmage against Charleston Southern.
“A couple hit my blind spot and that makes for tougher catches,” Duke said. “It’s all technique, keeping my eyes on the ball, because you can’t catch what you can’t see.
“But I understand that if I mess up, everybody sees it. If Matt throws an interception, everybody sees it. That’s the nature of what we do.”
For now, Duke and Johnson are taking aim at James Madison, a team that has had its share of defensive issues this season, allowing an average 439.3 yards per game.
“We’ve got to do a job on Duke,” said Dukes coach Everett Withers. “He’s a major threat. He’s probably the best receiver we’ve faced all year.”