The Charlotte 49ers’ sixth preseason football camp begins Friday. There’s little question this is a key season for the 49ers and coach Brad Lambert, who are coming off a 1-11 season and will be under the watchful eye of new athletics director Mike Hill.
Here are 10 storylines to follow as the 49ers prepare for their season opener Sept. 1 against Fordham at Richardson Stadium
1. New coordinators, new systems
Although most of the players responsible for 2017’s one-victory performance return, they will be playing in different systems this season. Lambert did a near-complete overhaul of his staff, including hiring a new offensive coordinator in former N.C. State quarterback Shane Montgomery and defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer.
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Montgomery has installed more of a pro-style offense, while Spencer’s defense will likely prominently feature a 3-4 alignment. Other new coaches include Chris Scelfo (running backs, offensive line) and Chip West (co-defensive coordinator, cornerbacks).
2. Quick quarterback decision
Coming off a one-victory season and knowing your job is on the line is not an ideal time to have an unsettled situation at quarterback. But that’s what Lambert is facing. Montgomery’s system might not favor returning starter Hasaan Klugh, a dangerous runner who had accuracy problems (47.7 completion percentage) last season. Potentially ready to step in is transfer Evan Shirreffs, the Miami Hurricanes’ backup last season who has two years of eligibility left.
Shirreffs — who will compete for the starting job with Klugh, redshirt freshman Chris Reynolds and true freshman Brady Pope — might be a more of a fit because he’s more of a drop-back, pro-style passer than Klugh. Lambert said he hopes to settle on a starter quickly.
3. Third-down woes
The 49ers will obviously be working on lots of things in the preseason, but their third-down efficiency on both sides of the ball needs to be a particular point of emphasis. Charlotte had an offensive third-down conversion rate of just 26 percent (worst in the nation), which helped translate into an average time of possession of 27 minutes, 12 seconds per game (118th out of 129 nationally). The 49ers also struggled on defensive third-down conversions (44 percent, 104th nationally). All those three-and-outs on offense and sustained drives by the opposition take a toll.
4. Ratcheting up the defensive pressure
Another dubious stat from last season: the 49ers’ 11 sacks. Only one team in the country — Air Force with 10 — had fewer. Spencer’s new scheme will need to address that, with junior college transfer Dantrell Barkley (who originally committed to South Carolina) and Zach Duncan (who had three of those 11 sacks) being potential key players. Linebackers Juwan Foggie and Jeff Gemmell are coming off solid seasons and will be asked to bring pressure off the edge.
5. Experience a plus, right?
The 49ers have 17 starters back, but is that a good or a bad thing considering they went 1-11 last season? There are talented players who must continue to develop. Senior offensive guard Nate Davis is one of Conference USA’s best linemen and Foggie, Gemmell and defensive back Ben DeLuca also made all-conference honorable mention. Those four are legitimate Football Bowl Subdivision-caliber players. It’s up to the rest of the squad to start rising to that level.
6. DeLuca’s impact
Last season DeLuca forced five fumbles, which averaged out to a nation-leading .45 per game. But the 49ers need to better complement DeLuca’s ball-dislodging skills: They had just two interceptions last season, yet another stat that ranked last in the nation.
7. Much-needed kicking help
Three kickers combined to miss nine of 13 field-goal attempts in 2017. So in steps freshman Jonathan Cruz with a mandate to correct that. He made 6-of-8 field goals as a high school senior in Cartersville, Ga., including a 55-yarder. He also punted in high school (45.3-yard average last season), so maybe he’ll get a look there, too. Arthur Hart, one of Conference USA’s top punters, graduated.
8. Needed: Receivers
The 49ers have two productive receivers returning in Workpeh Kofa (25 catches, 343 yards last season) and Mark Quattlebaum (31 catches for 343 yards). At least two inexperienced players need to step forward, especially if Montgomery’s offense dictates more passing. Redshirt freshmen Victor Tucker, Cameron Bent and Cameron Dollar, juco transfer Tyler Ringwood or true freshman Rico Arnold seem like the best candidates.
9. Running back depth
The 49ers had C-USA’s seventh-best rushing attack last season and might have gotten better. In addition to returning starter Benny LeMay (732 yards, two touchdowns) and Aaron McAllister (who had the longest run from scrimmage in school history, an 89-yarder against Western Kentucky), spring-game star Calvin Camp could also be a factor. Camp, a redshirt freshman from Shelby High, rushed for 131 yards and two touchdowns in the Green-White game.
10. Three home games to start
The schedule is front-loaded with three consecutive home games, each crucial in its own right. The 49ers open against Fordham, a Football Championship Series team that won four games in 2017. It will likely be the only game the 49ers are favored to win, and losing to the Rams really won’t be an option (the 49ers lost to the FCS’ N.C. A&T last season).
Appalachian State comes to Richardson Stadium on Sept. 8, and there’s little doubt the Mountaineers will be looking to display just how far the gap between the two rival programs might be. The 49ers-Mountaineers game was announced as a sellout Thursday.
The 49ers open their Conference USA season the following week against Old Dominion, another school that recently started football and struggled to beat Charlotte last season, winning 6-0 in Norfolk, Va.