When Marquill Osborne gazed across the Neyland Stadium field to the opposite sideline one day last November, he thought perhaps he might be looking at his future.
Osborne was also just plain nervous.
Then a junior cornerback and special teams player at Tennessee, Osborne knew he and his Volunteers teammates were getting all they could handle from Conference USA’s Charlotte 49ers. In the end, Tennessee prevailed 14-3, but an impression had been made.
“That was a team that definitely played hard as a whole,” Osborne said of Charlotte. “I thought they played well. I mean, we almost lost that game.”
It was the ninth game of Osborne’s junior season. He had arrived in Knoxville three years earlier as a four-star recruit out of Hough High, located in the Charlotte suburb of Cornelius. Things weren’t working out as planned for Osborne at Tennessee, where he hadn’t been able to crack the starting lineup. He had begun toying with the idea of transferring.
Osborne eventually made the decision — and ended up at Charlotte, where he figures to be a key contributor this season for first-year coach Will Healy.
“I looked at [the 49ers] and thought, ‘That’s a program I could definitely be at,’ ” Osborne said, remembering the Vols-49ers game. “Going through my situation, I was definitely evaluating them at that time.”
Now he’s a 49er.
“It’s good to be home,” Osborne said. “There’s nothing else I can say about it.”
Osborne was a four-star recruit at Hough and had offers from many of the country’s top programs, including Ohio State, Louisiana State and Clemson, as well as others in the ACC such as Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State.
Osborne picked the SEC and Tennessee. Despite not being a starter on defense, he made an impact, especially last season. A week after the Charlotte game, he had two interceptions against 18th-ranked Kentucky. He also blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown against East Tennessee State.
But Osborne wanted to spend his final season of eligibility at a place where he thought he could start. Understanding that he would potentially have to sit out a season if he switched schools, he put his name into the NCAA’s transfer portal last December and said he received interest from programs like Louisville and N.C. State.
But Healy had already seen on social media that Osborne wanted to transfer. Healy sent Osborne a direct message on Twitter.
“A no-brainer, really,” Healy said of his decision to reach out.
Two days later, Osborne — back in the Charlotte area for Christmas break — visited the Charlotte campus. The 49ers had recruited him earlier in his career at Hough, but he never seriously considered them. He said they stopped pursuing him anyway after it became apparent he was a Power 5 conference talent.
After playing against them, his perception of the 49ers was further changed with the visit and spending time with Healy, who had just been hired to replace the fired Brad Lambert.
“Everything Healy had said about the program was true,” Osborne said. “I fell in love with the place. I wanted to be part of the program and help set the foundation for Charlotte.”
There was something else.
Since Osborne and his girlfriend were expecting a baby in just a few weeks, he could transfer to Charlotte and, under the NCAA’s family hardship waiver, be immediately eligible to play in 2019.
So now Osborne isn’t missing a season, is back home and gets to be there for daughter Maia, who is now 7 months old.
“She puts a smile on my face,” Osborne said. “She’s why I’m out there. She’s doing little movements now. She’s not talking yet. I can wait on that. But she’s the reason I wake up.”
Osborne’s speed, physicality and aggressiveness have already made an impact on Charlotte’s defense. He will team with senior Nafees Lyon at cornerback when the 49ers open their season next Thursday against Gardner-Webb.
“I’ve been knowing him since high school, and we’ve always been competitive,” said Lyon, who played at Mallard Creek. “He brings a lot of energy. He’s going to come and bang you and be a lock-down corner. He’ll make a lot of plays for us.”
Said Osborne: “I’m going to help, just knowing the physical and mental side. Being patient. There are big plays to be made at the corner. So be patient and smart and know what’s going on. I’m a hands-on corner.”
At 5-11 185 pounds, Osborne also brings some added intensity. He’s been involved in at least one tussle with an offensive player during preseason practice, forcing Healy to say that he (and other players that particular day) had “crossed the line” with their aggressiveness.
“Yes, he is a Power 5 talent,” co-defensive coordinator Marcus West said. “You can see it. He took a different approach to this camp. It’s a pleasure to coach him every day.”