Charlotte 49ers begin football practice with Conference USA in sight

Charlotte 49ers coach Brad Lambert’s team opens preseason practice Thursday.
Charlotte 49ers coach Brad Lambert’s team opens preseason practice Thursday.

When offensive lineman Danny Book decided to transfer from Albany after the 2011 football season, there was something about the Charlotte 49ers’ new program that caught his attention.

Yes, Charlotte’s campus was near Book’s home in Harrisburg, where he played for Hickory Ridge High. And, yes, being on the ground floor as the 49ers got their program underway sounded appealing.

But when Book heard the 49ers would spend just two seasons as an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision program before moving up to the Football Bowl Subdivision and Conference USA in 2015, he was sold.

“I saw online that (the 49ers) were going to Conference USA,” Book said recently. “I called my dad, and said, ‘I want to do this.’”

Thursday, Charlotte opens preseason football practice as a full-fledged member of C-USA (other 49ers sports have been in the league for two seasons).

“This is something we’ve all been waiting for,” said Book, a senior who has started all 22 of Charlotte’s games in the 49ers’ first two seasons.

The 49ers – particularly Book and his offensive line teammates – begin practice concerned about the health of offensive line coach/recruiting coordinator Phil Ratliff, who remains hospitalized after suffering a cardiac event Monday.

Because of the uncertainty of Ratliff’s condition, Charlotte’s practices this week will be closed to the media and public, and Saturday’s media day has been postponed.

But the 49ers will try to focus on preparing for their first season at college football’s highest level, which includes a season opener Sept. 4 at Georgia State, their first FBS opponent in history. Charlotte’s C-USA opener is Sept. 19 at Middle Tennessee.

“We’ve had a lot of firsts in starting this program, but this is probably the biggest,” said coach Brad Lambert in a statement. “Having to play 11 FBS games – our guys have worked extremely hard and are working extremely hard now.

“(Starting the program) has been a lot of work. But we got to do a lot of things we don’t normally get to do: Doing contracts with apparel companies and ball companies and designing fields – all of those sorts of things that are normally in place when you take a job – from that standpoint to sit back today and see everybody that’s here and the number of people involved has been a real rewarding part of starting football.

“One of the other things – you can come in and put your stamp on how you want to do things, the work ethic you want to establish.”

The 49ers have 16 starters returning from last season’s team that went 5-6, many of them redshirt juniors who have been with the program since it started. They have experience, but not against the kind of competition Charlotte will face this season. A handful of transfers – including running back Andrew Buie (West Virginia), defensive lineman Josh Manley (Syracuse), defensive lineman Desmond Floyd (Wake Forest) and linebacker Seph Grimes (Illinois) – will be called on to provide at least as much leadership in the locker room as on the field.

If there will be a change anywhere, Lambert wants it to come on defense, where he brought in new coordinator Matt Wallerstedt in hopes of shoring up an often overmatched unit that allowed 31.6 points and 479.3 yards per game last season against FCS, Division II and Division III opposition.

“I can definitely see a change in the defense,” said Book. “They’re using a lot of different stuff, more blitzes. They’re moving around a lot more, to different spots. It’s more confusing for an offensive lineman. It’s a tough defense for us to get ready for in practice, so I hope it’s like that for the teams that play us.”

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