Football

What to look for as Charlotte 49ers open spring football practice

The spring will be a crucial time for several Charlotte 49ers players competing for the third and fourth receiver spots behind juniors Austin Duke, above, and Trent Bostick. The 49ers (5-6 last season) are stepping up to Conference USA and the Football Bowl Subdivision next fall.
The spring will be a crucial time for several Charlotte 49ers players competing for the third and fourth receiver spots behind juniors Austin Duke, above, and Trent Bostick. The 49ers (5-6 last season) are stepping up to Conference USA and the Football Bowl Subdivision next fall. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

The Charlotte 49ers open spring football practice Saturday with their days as an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision football start-up behind them.

Next for 49ers (5-6 last season) is the challenging step up to Conference USA and the Football Bowl Subdivision. Here are five things to look for during spring practice, which concludes with the spring game under the new lights at Richardson Stadium:

Wide open at quarterback?

It’s hard to envision anybody but junior Matt Johnson starting at quarterback when the 49ers open the season at Georgia State. But Lambert said competition for the spot is wide open. Johnson, who is fully recovered after missing the last three games of last season with a knee injury, has thrown for 4,522 yards 34 touchdowns in his two seasons as Charlotte’s starter. But Lambert was impressed with Lee McNeill’s play in relief of Johnson, and McNeill will practice with the first team beginning Saturday. Lambert said redshirt freshman Brooks Barden will get every chance to jump past Johnson and McNeill.

Running back depth

The running back position, once one of Charlotte’s deepest spots, has been depleted over the past year with the losses of Alan Barnwell and Maetron Thomas, both of whom were thrown off the team. The 49ers have a potential C-USA star in Kalif Phillips (1,441 yards, 12 rushing touchdowns in ’14) but need to find some adequate backups. Damarrell Alexander, who rushed for 201 yards last season, and Garrison Duncan, a transfer from Delaware State, are the two most likely candidates.

Lots of receivers

The spring will be a crucial time for several players competing for the third and fourth spots behind juniors Austin Duke and Trent Bostick. Look for Will Thomas, Corey Nesmith, Uriah LeMay, Emmitt Afam, Mark Quattlebaum, Chris Montgomery, Workpeh Kofa and Juwan Foggie to get shots. “I consider that a real strength of our team” Lambert said. “There will be a lot of competition there.”

Vacancy on the O-line

Charlotte loses right guard Daniel Blitch to graduation, the only loss on what was a top-notch offensive line. Whoever doesn’t win the starting center position between Thomas La Bianca and Jarred Barr likely will take over Blitch’s spot. Juniors Wolfgang Zacherl and Mason Sledge also have a shot.

Defensive changes

The 49ers’ defense, which allowed 31.6 points and 479.3 yards per game last season, has a new coordinator in Matt Wallerstedt. He will install some different formations this spring, including more 4-3 looks. “But the biggest difference will be in how aggressive we’ll be,” Lambert said. “That’s in Matt’s personality.”

Josh Manley, a transfer from Syracuse, and Devon Johnson (injured in 2014) will provide more depth on the line.

The linebacker corps remains somewhat in flux. Two-year starter Nico Alcalde has left school, and Caleb Clayton-Molby, who missed most of last season with a knee injury, probably won’t practice this spring after slightly injuring his other knee in offseason workouts. Nick Cook, who also missed substantial time last season with an ankle injury, is back.

Key dates

Saturday: Spring practice begins

April 18: Spring game (6 p.m.)

First week of August (date TBA): Preseason practice begins.

Sept. 3: Season opener at Georgia State (date may change based on Atlanta Falcons’ Georgia Dome schedule).

Sept. 12: Home opener vs. Presbyterian.

Sept. 19: Conference USA opener at Middle Tennessee.

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