Brad Lambert likes the way things are shaping up with the Charlotte’s football team during spring practices, even if there are question marks about the 2016 starting lineup.
While the battle to be the 49ers’ starting quarterback has drawn most of the attention, there are still starting spots (and significant playing time as reserves) open in at least a half-dozen positions.
“The recruiting classes keep elevating themselves, based on the move to FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision),” Lambert said. “We’re seeing those guys as factors now, instead of just being redshirt guys. They’re factors, and we’re adding depth. Being able to develop that depth has been huge for us. That’s been the fun part of spring.”
With Charlotte’s spring drills heading into its final week before the April 23 Green-White Game at Richardson Stadium, here’s a look at how things stand at those six positions:
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Right tackle: Charlotte has lots of options to replace Danny Book, who started every game in the 49ers’ first three seasons, but Lambert is also looking at keeping things flexible along the entire offensive line.
Through spring drills, redshirt sophomore Chris Brown and redshirt junior Eugene German have gotten most of the first-team reps.
In fact, with starting left tackle Jamal Covington sidelined while recovering from knee surgery, Lambert has had Brown scrimmaging on the left side, with German on the right.
Charlotte also has more depth along its entire offensive line this year, with redshirt freshman Cameron Clark, redshirt senior Jarred Barr (who started four games last season), sophomore Darren Drake, redshirt junior Wolfgang Zacherl, and even starting right guard Nate Davis practicing at multiple line positions.
“We’re trying to set ourselves up with a couple options, if we do get guys hurt like we did last year,” Lambert said. “I’ve been extremely pleased with the way those guys have jelled.”
H-back: Essentially a tight end, Lambert said four players are in the hunt to replace two-year starter Richard Murphy – and that all four could see playing time this season.
The 49ers have three redshirt seniors – Justin Bolus, Zach Bumgarner and Berry Academy grad Kyle Hoffman – all being pushed by redshirt sophomore R.J. Tyler.
“We’re playing more two-tight end stuff now,” Lambert said. “We’re extremely deep at that position … and we’ve got a lot of flexibility.”
Inside linebacker: While Charlotte has redshirt senior Nick Cook back at one of the two ILB spots, the 49ers are looking for a replacement for Caleb Clayton-Molby.
With Cook (toe) and Charlotte Catholic grad Karrington King (shoulder) both limited in practice while recovering from off-season surgery, senior Justin Bridges-Thompson and redshirt junior Garrison Duncan (a converted running back) have been getting the snaps.
“We had a three-man rotation last year with Caleb starting,” Lambert said. “JBT’s had a real good spring, and he’s a guy that we’ve needed to come through. He’s really evolved into that rotation.”
Outside linebacker: Charlotte is looking for someone to replace Jalen Holt, an eight-game starter last year, and complement redshirt senior Daquan Lucas, who started every game at the other OLB slot.
Again, it could wind up being a group of players in rotation at the spot. Redshirt junior Jordan Starnes, who has played at the Bandit position (a hybrid linebacker/defensive lineman role) in certain formations last year, has been penciled in as the 2016 starter, but he’s being challenged by redshirt freshmen Jeff Gemmell and Tyriq Harris.
“That’s a really talented group, but not with a ton of experience,” Lambert said. “Jeff and Tyriq are really pushing everybody, really talented young guys who have had real good springs.”
Safety: With three experienced starters in the defensive secondary returning, Lambert may go young in replacing departing starter Branden Dozier.
Redshirt freshman A.J. McDonald has moved to the top of the list during spring drills, according to Lambert, but the 49ers also have some depth in redshirt sophomores Alex Duncan, a Navy transfer, and Connor Dulmage, and junior Markevis Davis (rehabbing from off-season surgery).
“They’ve all had a good spring,” Lambert said. “Once we get Markevis back, we’ll have a battle then.”
Punt returner: With two-year starter Ardy Holmes Jr. gone, Lambert said that the spot will be filled by either redshirt senior Austin Duke (also a starting wide receiver) or redshirt freshman Nate Mullen, a Hickory Ridge High grad.
“If we played tomorrow, Austin would be the guy back there, based on experience,” Lambert said. “But it wouldn’t surprise me that when we get to the end of August, Nate would be the guy. He’s got a real knack for being a punt returner.”