Former Wonder Phillips emerges as 49ers’ starting running back

Sophomore Kalif Phillips is coming off a breakout season as the Charlotte 49ers’ top rusher last season. Entering his sophomore season, the former A.L. Brown Wonder says there’s only one thing different about him this year.

He changed uniform numbers from 25 to 3. Because of it, Phillips has been asked the inevitable.

“Everybody says it’s for Dale Earnhardt and all that,” said Phillips. “That’s not the reason. But things come together with things like that.”

Just like Earnhardt, the deceased NASCAR legend, Phillips is a guy from Kannapolis known for his speed. In 2014, Phillips will be the starting tailback for a team looking to gain some traction in its second season.

“I think Kalif had a really good year for us last year,” said head coach Brad Lambert. “He’s going to be our starter. He’s going to carry the load for us. Kalif handles his business really well. He’s a tough, physical runner. I expect him to have a good year this year.”

Although he did not start a game in 2013, Phillips led Charlotte with 744 yards rushing on 129 attempts, which was only four fewer carries than team leader Alan Barnwell, who was a redshirt freshman last year.

Phillips scored a team-high 13 touchdowns, and when he scored three times in a season-ending victory at Morehead State, it was the first time any 49er scored more than two touchdowns in a game. Phillips scored eight times over Charlotte’s final four contests.

Phillips’ play improved despite an injury that went undiagnosed until the season’s end. Phillips had a torn labrum and he guesses that the injury occurred sometime in the middle of the season.

“I didn’t feel like I (tore it),” said Phillips. “I was still playing with it. It really didn’t faze me. With me, I can play with pain. It’s nothing for me. I’m going to focus on giving us a better chance to win. Being hurt is not going to stop me from helping my team.

“I don’t know how I tore it. (Medical personnel) said they didn’t know how I was still playing. It felt like a stinger. It was in a game in the middle of the season, but I don’t know which game. I figured it would go away in a few minutes.”

Phillips’ activity was limited in the spring, and he did not play in the second annual Green-White Spring Game in April. Damarrell Alexander, a redshirt junior who was Charlotte’s fourth leading rusher last year, and redshirt freshman Joc Watkins handled most of the carries.

Phillips’ promotion to starter was at least partly initiated by the dismissal of Barnwell from the team in May. Barnwell was arrested in January on charges of driving with a revoked license and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Lambert had previously considered redshirting Phillips for this season, but the spring’s roster activity helped change his mind. That was a relief to Phillips, who said, “I can’t be on the sideline watching. I have to be playing football.”

“We would have liked to redshirt (Phillips),” said Lambert. “But given the situation that’s kind of where it is. He has to play for us because of Alan’s situation.”

Phillips is excited about returning to Charlotte’s high-powered offense. Last season, the 49ers averaged 33 points per game.

Charlotte returns its starting quarterback Matt Johnson, its top receiver Austin Duke and all five starting offensive linemen.