Football

Charlotte 49ers’ Matt Johnson welcomes change from quarterback to running back

Charlotte back Matt Johnson heads upfield during a running backs drill at the 49ers first spring practice session, held Saturday, March 19, 2016.
Charlotte back Matt Johnson heads upfield during a running backs drill at the 49ers first spring practice session, held Saturday, March 19, 2016.

Matt Johnson isn’t concerned that he’s no longer wearing a black jersey during Charlotte’s spring football practices – in fact, he’s rather relieved.

That’s because 49ers coach Brad Lambert has different plans for Johnson heading into the 2016 season.

Johnson, who is 6-foot-3 and 233 pounds, is being shifted from quarterback – who wears a black jersey in practice to indicate no contact – to running back, with plans to use the redshirt senior as a hybrid back, running (and even passing) out of special formations.

“I’m excited about moving to running back,” Johnson said before Tuesday’s practice. “It actually plays more to my strengths, because I’m more of a hard-nosed, downfield kind of guy.

“It’s really liberating me in a lot of ways, to be able to do things that I’m good at, but also forcing me to get better at some things.”

Running with the ball isn’t new for Johnson, who has 1,128 rushing yards and five touchdowns for Charlotte the past three seasons. But the 2012 Maiden High grad did more for the 49ers with his arm.

As Charlotte’s starting quarterback in 2013 and 2014, Johnson threw for 4,522 yards and 34 touchdowns in 19 starts, despite having his 2014 season was cut short because of an injury.

The transition to the hybrid back role began during last season, when Johnson was brought in primarily in short-yardage situations.

Even with the limited time on the field, Johnson still ran for 327 yards and one touchdown, and he threw for 771 yards and seven scores.

“That worked well for me, mainly going in and getting those hard yards, getting those first downs when we needed them,” said Johnson, who holds school career records for passing yards (5,293) and touchdowns (41).

With a battle looming for the starting quarterback slot – returnees Brooks Barden and Lee McNeill, redshirt sophomore Hasaan Klugh, transfer Kevin Olsen, East Carolina graduate transfer Cody Keith all are in the mix during spring drills – Lambert felt the time was right to make the move with Johnson.

“We’ve been thinking about this for a while,” Lambert said. “He’s a productive guy, so how do we utilize him? We just felt like it was better for him not to have the pressure to be the quarterback, let him be who he is and try to find a way to keep that production.”

49ers off Saturday

Lambert said the 49ers would take Saturday off for the Easter holiday but would return to the planned three-day-a-week practice schedule next week.

Weather permitting, Charlotte will move to workouts Thursday and Friday afternoons on the grass practice fields, then move to Richardson Stadium on Saturday mornings for scrimmages.

The Thursday and Friday practices will be open to the public, but the Saturday scrimmages will be closed.

Strapping on the pads

After two days of working out in just helmets and shorts, Lambert said the 49ers will go with full pads beginning with Thursday’s practice.

“We’re gonna let them strap on the pads and go at it,” he said. “They’re ready to go out and hit somebody.”

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