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49ers hope seasoning will solve defensive woes

The Charlotte 49ers’ defense had an all-or-nothing feel to it last season.

The 49ers made big play after big play during their inaugural season, finishing among the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision leaders in most turnover categories.

But it was in the more mundane areas of defense – consistently getting off the field after three downs, keeping the opposition off the scoreboard – where Charlotte struggled.

Those basic defensive deficiencies were primarily responsible for a 5-6 record – including a five-game stretch in which the 49ers allowed an average of 43.4 points.

Coach Brad Lambert said the defensive problems were fairly easy to pinpoint: The 49ers were inexperienced at most spots and had little depth.

“(Defense) was a problem for us, but it wasn’t that unexpected with all the young guys we were playing,” said Lambert, whose team will open preseason practice Wednesday. “Then you get some injuries and that kind of makes things tougher.”

Charlotte allowed 439.0 yards (ranked 95th nationally out of 122 teams) and 31.2 points (86th) per game. The average of 1.64 sacks (18 total) ranked 90th. The really bad news? Charlotte’s 51.7 third-down defense percentage ranked 120th, eclipsed only by Colgate (52.8) and Arkansas-Pine Bluff (56.1).

Eight defensive starters return this season, the departed including the team’s two leading tacklers from 2013, safety Martay Mattox (dismissed from the team) and linebacker Mark Hogan (graduated). A third starter, linebacker Terry Caldwell, was also thrown off the team for unspecified rules violations.

Two players who were freshmen in 2013 – cornerback Devin Pearson and linebacker Justin Bridges-Thompson – might be redshirted so they can have three years of eligibility remaining when Charlotte moves into the Football Bowl Subdivision and Conference USA in 2015.

Nowhere was Charlotte’s youth more apparent than on the thin defensive line, where the 49ers started three freshmen – nose tackle Larry Ogunjobi and ends Brandon Banks and James Middleton.

Ogunjobi played much of the season with an injured finger. Devon Johnson, the line’s top backup, missed the last five games with an Achilles injury, from which he has yet to fully recover.

Among those on the line Lambert hopes will step up behind the three returning starters: sophomores Devin Clegg and Greg Cunningham and redshirt freshman Nick Carroll.

“We’ve got to continue to develop our depth up front,” Lambert said. “That’s kind of the place where if we can get a bit more solid and deep, it will really help us.”

If the 49ers had trouble getting off the field with their three-and-out defense, they made up for it in other ways. Charlotte ranked ninth in FCS in takeaways (31), fifth in fumbles recovered (16), 25th in interceptions (15) and 29th in tackles for loss (6.9 per game).

Linebacker Caleb Clayton-Molby forced four fumbles, which tied for third most nationally (.4 per game).

“I think we’re on schedule to be a much better defensive team,” said senior safety Desmond Cooper, who played one season at Wake Forest before transferring to Charlotte. “There was a lot out there last season that these guys weren’t ready for. They didn’t know what to expect. But they’re starting to perform at a high level now.

“But playing in real games, against real competition, we can do nothing but get better. They’ll be ready for it.”

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