It’s time for the Charlotte 49ers football program to take the next step.
After finishing their second season in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision with a 52-14 victory last Saturday, the 49ers will move up to the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision and Conference USA in 2015.
“It’s serious, really serious, now,” said 49ers nose tackle Larry Ogunjobi. “It’s big-boy football.”
If the 49ers’ move seems fast, it’s because it is. Only Texas-San Antonio, which started football in 2011 and was playing FBS the next season, has done it quicker.
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“This is a tough task ahead,” said 49ers coach Brad Lambert. “We all know that.”
The 49ers, who have relied mostly on freshmen and sophomores in their first two seasons (both of which ended with 5-6 records), will be much more experienced next season, which will open in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome against Georgia State during the first week of September (an exact date hasn’t been determined).
Charlotte will have nine starters back on offense, 10 on defense. Most of them were with the team when it first began practicing in the fall of 2012 – one year before Charlotte played its first game.
“We’ll have a lot of old guys back,” said Lambert, using his pet expression for experienced players. “There should be 30 fourth-year players with us. That’s what we’ve set our sights on.”
How will the 49ers’ fare in a 12-game schedule that will feature 11 FBS opponents, three of them (Georgia State, Temple and Kentucky) nonconference?
Charlotte’s offense has never had problems scoring (averaging 38.9 points this season), and has quarterback Matt Johnson, running back Kalif Phillips (1,441 yards ) and receivers Austin Duke and Trent Bostic back. There is just one obvious hole to fill at right guard, where Jarred Barr will likely replace Daniel Blitch.
Although starter Dmarjai Devine will have graduated at one receiver spot, there appears to plenty of talent to replace him, including sophomores T.L. Ford and Juwan Foggie, as well as redshirt freshmen Mark Quattlebaum and Workpeh Kofa and sophomore Uriah LeMay.
“You’re going to have to play pretty good as a receiver to get on the field for us,” said Lambert.
One area of concern for Lambert is depth at running back. Two major contributors – Alan Barnwell and Maetron Thomas – were thrown off the team over the past year, leaving only Damarrell Alexander behind Phillips. Garrison Duncan, a junior transfer from Delaware State, will be given a look.
The defense, which struggled for much of the season, will have injured middle linebackers Caleb Clayton-Molby and Nick Cook back. Defensive end Devon Johnson, who missed the season with an Achilles injury, will help bolster the line, which will have starters Brandon Banks, James Middleton and Ogunjobi back.
The secondary will return intact except for one safety spot, where senior Ardy Holmes will likely replace the graduated Desmond Cooper.
Lambert said Charlotte’s program is changing. Gone are leaders like Cooper, who transferred from Wake Forest and linebacker Mark Hogan, who played one season in 2012 after transferring from Georgia State.
Carrying the program forward now are players like Ogunjobi who have two seasons of playing experience and have two more years of eligibility after having been part of the 49ers’ first high school recruiting class.
“These old guys will be able to say to anybody new to our program, ‘This is how we do it here,’ ” said Lambert. “We had guys like Des and Mark before who helped establish that. But these guys now take that role and that’s been born out over the past two seasons.”