College Sports

No longer content with a bowl, Charlotte 49ers linemen plan to push team even further

The switch to new running backs such as Robert Washington, above, and Benny LeMay, is going well, three veteran Charlotte 49ers offensive linemen say.
The switch to new running backs such as Robert Washington, above, and Benny LeMay, is going well, three veteran Charlotte 49ers offensive linemen say. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

It’s not clear which of the Charlotte 49ers’ running backs will emerge as a go-to guy at that position this season, but whoever carries the ball will have an experienced line in front of him.

With three returning starters, including Vance High’s Chris Brown, and more than a half-dozen other talented linemen, the 49ers figure to provide their running backs with plenty of protection.

“We have a lot of returnees,” says Darren Drake, a 6-2, 309-pound junior from McDonough, Ga. “I think the line should be one of our strong points this year.”

The season starts Friday evening, when the 49ers visit Eastern Michigan. That will launch Charlotte’s third season as an FBS program and its fifth football campaign overall.

In addition to Brown, Charlotte has returning starters in Nate Davis and Eugene German. There also are a pair of junior college transfers, Jean Eason and David Foust, and experienced players in Wolfgang Zacherl and Drake.

“I think this is the best group we’ve had on the offensive line in my time here,” said Zacherl, a redshirt junior. “That talent and our experience should really make a difference this season.”

The offensive line made a midseason adjustment last fall, when Hassan Klugh took over at quarterback. This season, they’re coping with a change at running back. With Khalif Phillips vying for a spot with the Green Bay Packers, Robert Washington and Benny LeMay lead a group of running back hopefuls.

Zacherl said the line is working well with Klugh.

“We’re getting to the point where the mental link is close,” he said. “We’re used to his timing, his cadence.”

Brown said Klugh’s leadership has been a big help. “We feel comfortable with him,” Brown said.

Brown, Drake and Zacherl agree that the switch to new running backs also is going well.

“The transition feels comfortable,” Brown said. “They’re making big plays (in practice). They’ve been making the right reads.”

Drake said Washington, LeMay and the other running backs have been picking up blocks well.

“We tell them, ‘You play your game, and we’ll increase our game,’ ” he said.

Brown, a 6-4, 304-pound redshirt junior, said staying in Charlotte to play college football was a good decision.

“I knew what this city could offer to a new program like ours,” he said. “I thought it was a great opportunity.”

He said it’s nice to know there will be family and friends in the stands at Richardson Stadium.

And he said the 49ers are poised for something big this season. Brown talked about 2016, when Charlotte seemed within reach of a .500 campaign and a bowl bid, but faltered late in the season.

“We learned from that,” he said. “We’re better now. We’re not thinking about a bowl game. Our goal is to win the (Conference USA) East. We’ll let the bowl thing work itself out.”

Running back update: Coach Brad Lambert said Washington, of East Gaston High, has looked good in practice. He also has high hopes for LeMay, but the former Butler High back’s progress was slowed by a knee injury earlier this month.

Kicking battle: Lambert has expressed some concern about the 49ers’ kicking situation. “We’re looking for a guy to emerge,” he said. “The people trying for that position have all had some good days and some bad days.”

New TV deal: Charlotte IMG Sports Marketing has announced that the 49ers’ first three home games this season will air on local TV. Charlotte’s contests against North Carolina A&T (Sept. 16), Georgia State (Sept. 23) and Marshall (Oct. 7) will be carried by WCCB-TV.

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