Football

Plenty of room for improvement in Charlotte 49ers defense

The Charlotte 49er defense tackles Charleston Southern's Christian Reyes in a 47-41 Buccaneers victory in 2014.
The Charlotte 49er defense tackles Charleston Southern's Christian Reyes in a 47-41 Buccaneers victory in 2014. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Larry Ogunjobi knows what the word was about the Charlotte 49ers’ defense last season.

The word wasn’t good.

“Every time anybody talks about Charlotte, it’s about the defense,” said Ogunjobi, the 49ers’ junior nose tackle. “Everybody has their personal opinion, saying this or that.”

Unfortunately for Ogunjobi and the 49ers, the negative talk was justified. Charlotte’s defense struggled all season, allowing an average of 31.6 points and 479.3 yards per game.

During a six-game losing streak, the 49ers allowed an average of 44.0 points. More frustrating, the defensive unit was unable to support an offense that did more than enough for the 49ers to be better than their 5-6 record indicated, averaging 38.9 points and 486.9 yards.

Changes have come for the defense, beginning at the top with new coordinator Matt Wallerstedt, who has installed a new system as the 49ers prepare to play for the first time in the Football Bowl Subdivision and Conference USA.

Key players who were injured last season are healthy now. And what should be a helpful crop of newcomers have also arrived, improving the unit’s depth.

“Our whole mentality, our attitude, our work ethic, it’s something we’ve worked on over the years,” said senior inside linebacker Caleb Clayton-Molby, who missed much of last season with a knee injury. “But with coach ‘Wall’ everybody’s really buying in and working hard. We’ve got something to prove.”

Wallerstedt, who was 49ers coach Brad Lambert’s college roommate at Kansas State, replaces Bruce Tall, who left to coach the defensive line at West Virginia.

Under Tall, the 49ers consistently played a 3-4 defense that offered little pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Wallerstedt said he will mix up formations and coverages and wants his players to be more aggressive.

“We’ve been listening to the kids; we want them to have success and have fun,” said Wallerstedt. “We all have a lot of confidence in this package. The players have really bought in. They’ve been feeding off what we’re doing.”

Said Ogunjobi, who led Charlotte with five sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss last season: “Teams were able to get a bead on us last season. Even though it’s our first Conference USA season, the other teams will only have film of us in the 3-4. They won’t know how we’ve changed and if we’re moving differently or not.”

Ogunjobi said the biggest difference, however, might be in what Wallerstedt is bringing emotionally to a unit that finished last season as bruised emotionally as physically. He’s invested in each defensive player, even posting a message on their Facebook pages: “Faith, family and football.”

“Fiery, that’s how I describe him,” said Ogunjobi. “He has a switch. He can be talking (calmly) like this, then, phew, it’s full go, let’s go! He’s got this energy and enthusiasm. And I’ve never had a coach comment on Facebook like that.”

Clayton-Molby had another way to illustrate Wallerstedt’s defense.

“Violent,” he said.

Charlotte loses four key contributors from last season – linebackers Nico Alcalde and Dustin Crouser left the program, linebacker Mark Pettit was dismissed for academic reasons and safety Desmond Cooper is on the Jacksonville Jaguars’ roster as an undrafted free agent.

But despite those losses, the 49ers should have a more talented, and deeper, group on defense. Back are senior safety Branden Dozier, the team’s leading tackler, and junior Greg Cunningham, who led the team with three interceptions.

Also returning are Clayton-Molby and junior Nick Cook, another inside linebacker who missed 10 games with an ankle injury. Lineman Devon Johnson missed the entire season with an Achilles injury. Ogunjobi played despite being slowed by an injured hand for much of the season.

Then there are transfers such as linebackers Desmond Floyd (Wake Forest) and Zeph Grimes (Illinois), lineman Josh Manley (Syracuse) and cornerback Anthony Covington (Appalachian State), each of whom is expected to contribute.

“No more having to play 90 reps a game for some of us,” said Ogunjobi. “That’s a lot of stress on me and a couple of other guys. It takes a toll. If I can now go 40 or so full-speed reps, where I can battle at 100 percent each play, that’s going to be great.

“And it will really come into play in the seventh or eighth game of the season, when we’ll still be strong.”

Generous to a fault

The 49ers’ defense will have its work cut out for it trying to stop FCS teams this season:

FCS rank

Defensive category

Charlotte

(out of 122)*

Points (avg.)

31.6

93

Total yards (avg.)

477.5

113

Rushing yards (avg.)

193.3

89

Passing yards (avg.)

284.2

117

Interceptions (season)

13

T42

Fumbles recovered (season)

9

T48

Third-down conversion rate

45.8

113

Fourth-down conversion rate

45.5

42

Red zone scores

78%

T49

Pass efficiency rating

125.16

55

Sacks (season)

19

78

Tackles for loss (avg.)

7.0

T28

*unofficial; Charlotte played as FCS independent in 2014, but wasn’t included in NCAA statistics.

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