Even if Ardy Holmes is starting the 2015 football season on the sideline because of an off-season injury, the Charlotte 49ers cornerback will play an integral part in stopping opposing offenses on critical third downs.
Described by Charlotte secondary coach James Adams as the “heartbeat of the defense,” Holmes has a knack for building up people’s confidence, whether it’s a teammate or an acquaintance. So it is Holmes’ face and voice that will appear on the video scoreboard at Jerry Richardson Stadium during games this season when it’s time for the crowd to get behind the 49ers’ defense on critical plays.
Holmes is a redshirt senior. A West Charlotte graduate, he is among a handful of players who attended central Charlotte high schools and will battle for playing time in the 49ers secondary this season.
Holmes, West Charlotte teammate Greg Cunningham Jr., and Berry Academy graduate Terrance Winchester are all returning lettermen. Cunningham was a starter in 2014 and led the team with three interceptions.
The three players took different paths to becoming 49ers.
Cunningham, a redshirt junior, took the most traditional route. He said he was offered scholarships by Duke, Wake Forest, and N.C. Central but opted to be a member of Charlotte’s first signing class in 2012.
“It’s been a blast for the most part,” Cunningham said. “We started when there wasn’t anything here. It was just dirt. The stadium wasn’t here. Charlotte was my number one priority. I wanted to stay in the city where I grew up.”
Winchester arrived the same year as Cunningham but started his career as a “preferred walk-on,” meaning he was invited by the coaching staff to be a part of the team. The 49ers spent the fall of 2012 and the following spring preparing for their inaugural season in the fall of 2013.
Adams says Winchester didn’t garner much attention from college scouts during his years at Berrry. Winchester avoided skills camps, which kept him off their radars.
Winchester, a Mineral Springs resident, spent that time trying to prove that he was worth more than walk-on status. Before his freshman year was over, he had earned a scholarship.
“I wasn’t so much expecting a scholarship, but (head) Coach (Brad) Lambert and Coach Adams said they were going to play the best 11 and they kept their promise,” Winchester said. “I came into camp and showed them what I could do and they kept their word and gave me a scholarship.”
Unlike Cunningham and Winchester, Holmes left Charlotte to begin his college career. A 2011 West Charlotte graduate, he came out a year prior to Charlotte’s first recruiting efforts.
Holmes landed at Marshall and played as a true freshman. He said even then he knew he wanted to play for the 49ers.
Holmes spent a second year at Marshall as a member of the football team. He didn’t play in any games, though, and he was able to use 2012 as a redshirt season.
Being the father of an infant girl also drew Holmes back to Charlotte. He takes a lot of pride in his family and his roots in the Genesis Park neighborhood where he grew up.
This summer, Holmes brought along about 10 of his 49ers teammates to volunteer at a football camp hosted by the youth team for which he once he played, the C-Meck Rams.
Holmes will be out of action until mid-October because of a foot injury. But he’ll return in time to play at home Oct. 31 against Marshall, a rival in Conference USA.
Charlotte will be playing its first season in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, a daunting challenge – especially for a defense that surrendered 477 yards per game last season.
Cunningham and Winchester will compete against each other for one of the starting cornerback positions, something they’ve gotten accustomed to. Because of a couple injuries, Winchester has started nine times in 18 games over two years. For two straight seasons, Cunningham has ranked seventh on the team in tackles.
Charlotte opens at Georgia State on Sept. 4. The 49ers’ first home game is Sept. 12 against Presbyterian.
Joe Habina is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.