The Charlotte 49ers have 16 starters returning from last season as they prepare for their first year as a Football Bowl Subdivison program in Conference USA.
But all that experience doesn’t mean every starter is a lock to reclaim his position. Here are five spots where the competition might be keenest for the 49ers, who open preseason practice Thursday in preparation for their season opener Sept. 4 at Georgia State:
Quarterback: This battle involving junior Matt Johnson, junior Lee McNeill and redshirt freshman Brooks Barden will attract the most attention. Don’t anticipate a quarterback controversy, because coach Brad Lambert said he hopes to announce a starter within the first 10 days or so of camp.
McNeill, who started the final three games of last season after Johnson hurt his knee, went into spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. But a hamstring injury to McNeill and an illness for Barden in the spring allowed Johnson to move back into the top spot. Still, Lambert said the job continues to be up for grabs.
Running back: This isn’t necessarily a competition for a starting spot, because junior Kalif Phillips and senior Andrew Buie both figure to get plenty of snaps. The arrival of Buie, a graduate transfer from West Virginia, is actually good news for Phillips, who will have somebody to share the load in Charlotte’s spread, hurry-up offense.
Phillips, who has gained 2,112 yards and scored 32 rushing touchdowns in his first two seasons, must prove he can do that against FBS competition. Buie, who led the Mountaineers with 851 yards as a sophomore in 2012, has already shown he can. Buie probably won’t join the 49ers until next week as he finishes up work on his degree from West Virginia.
Receiver: This is probably where the 49ers are deepest, with 16 players listed on the roster. There is plenty of quality, too, but with the word “potential” attached to it. Juniors Austin Duke and Trent Bostick are the top two, but there will be plenty to choose from for the third spot, including T.L. Ford, Will Thomas, Corey Nesmith, Uriah LeMay, Emmitt Afam, Mark Quattlebaum, Chris Montgomery, Workpeh Kofa and Juwan Foggie.
There’s enough depth here that Lambert isn’t ruling out redshirting Bostick, who is bearing down on the 1,000-yard mark for his career.
Defensive line: Depth has been an issue for two seasons at this spot, with ends Brandon Banks and James Middleton and noseguard Larry Ogunjobi seeing most of the action in what was a 49ers’ 3-4 defense.
Now there are newcomers who will press them for time (especially with the new and more varied formations coming with new defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt), most notably Josh Manley (transfer from Syracuse who is the nephew of former Washington Redskins star Dexter Manley), Devon Johnson (hurt last season) and Desmond Floyd (transfer from Wake Forest).
Cornerback: Juniors Greg Cunningham (team-high three interceptions last season) and Tank Norman will enter camp as the starters, but sophomores Devin Pearson and Anthony Covington are talented enough to supplant them.
Pearson redshirted last season after starting seven games as a freshman. Covington (Mallard Creek High) sat out last season after transferring from Appalachian State, where he played in every gamein 2013.
Start of area teams’ practices
App. State: Thursday
Catawba: Aug. 12
East Carolina: Thursday
Johnson C. Smith: Aug. 13
Lenoir-Rhyne: Aug. 13
N.C. A&T: Wednesday
N.C. Central: Wednesday
N.C. State: Tuesday
North Carolina: Monday
South Carolina: Tuesday
Wake Forest: Thursday
Western Carolina: Monday
Wingate: Aug. 11