The bar has been set pretty low for the Charlotte 49ers in the Conference USA football race this year. That doesn’t seem to bother coach Brad Lambert too much.
“That was all kind of expected,” Lambert said on Thursday before the 49ers’ first preseason practice as a Football Bowl Subdivision program in C-USA. “We haven’t played any FBS teams yet. We’re starting at the bottom. But we want to move up that ladder. That’s our challenge.”
Charlotte, which is in just its third season of football (playing 2013 and ’14 as a Football Championship Subdivision program) has been picked to finish seventh (and last) in C-USA’s East Division by the league’s media. A survey of various national print and online previews also has the 49ers finishing in the division basement.
However, there are a few publications ranking every FBS team – from one to 128 – and the 49ers have managed to stay away from being No. 128 in a few of them. The Orlando Sentinel, for example, ranks Charlotte 111th, ahead of two other C-USA teams (Florida Atlantic, 118th; and Texas-San Antonio, 123rd) and its season-opening opponent, the Sun Belt’s Georgia State (121st).
▪ Lambert said there is no update on the condition of offensive line coach Phil Ratliff, who remains hospitalized after a cardiac event Monday. Lambert said tight ends coach Johnson Richardson and team player personnel director Kevin Donnelly will fill in for Ratliff. Graduate assistant Louis Swaba will coach tight ends.
“We’re going to make that change during this temporary little period that (Ratliff) isn’t here,” said Lambert.
Lambert said he expects the 49ers to practice and prepare well despite Ratliff’s absence.
“They know how coach ‘Rat’ would be if he was here, how focused he would be and how hard the offensive line works for him,” Lambert said. “So they’re preparing to be ready for when he gets back. The best thing we can do is to get back on the field.”
▪ The 49ers opened practice without senior graduate transfer running back Andrew Buie, who is expected next week after he completes his degree at West Virginia this week.
▪ Lambert said he’s eager to see how Charlotte’s newcomers perform in practice, singling out true freshman running back Akease Rankin (Mooresville), true freshman receiver/returner Nate Mullen and redshirt freshman offensive lineman Nate Davis.
If Rankin, who rushed for 1,543 yards and 23 touchdowns last season, can’t find playing time behind Kalif Phillips and Buie, he could be redshirted.
The 49ers hope Mullen, son of offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen, can be the answer returning punts. That was an area of concern for Charlotte in 2014 and Mullen set Hickory Ridge High career records in those departments.
Davis (6-foot-3, 283 pounds) could push for playing time on an experienced and talented offensive line.