Daniel Blitch, an offensive lineman for the Charlotte 49ers, will try out for the Carolina Panthers this week. Desmond Cooper, a Charlotte safety, will return to his hometown and try out for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
It’s a run on 49ers. Blitch and Cooper are the first players from the school invited to minicamp. Since the football program is only 2 years old, the 49ers are averaging one NFL candidate per season.
Charlotte football was the ultimate underdog, overcoming numerous challenges flung at it from the outside. Perhaps Blitch and Cooper, both of whom transferred from Wake Forest, will overcome the odds and make their teams.
A player Carolina invited to try out last season, offensive lineman David Foucault, made the roster. Regardless of what happens, Blitch and Cooper were invited because their prospective employers saw something they liked.
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They’ve “opened the door for us,” says Phil Ratliff, Charlotte’s offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator.
Blitch already has auditioned for the Panthers. An NFL team can invite players from its metropolitan area – or whose schools are – to try out. The tryouts do not count against the 30-player visits a team is allowed. The Panthers’ tryout was April 10 and included 24 players, some of them 49ers and some from Johnson C. Smith.
Blitch, 6-foot-5 and 340 pounds, worked with John Matsko, the Panthers’ easygoing offensive line coach. All right, the latter is a joke. No offensive line coach has ever been easygoing, and no offensive line coach ever will be.
“Matsko worked him out 45 minutes,” says Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman. “He worked the dog out of him. The O-line went the longest.”
“He has the size to play tackle and guard,” says Gettleman. “He did a really nice job.”
Blitch, who is from Clermont, Ga., population 875, is 23 and graduated in December with a degree in geography. He watched the draft not far from campus at the home of fellow offensive lineman Mason Sledge. When the draft ended, Blitch’s agent called.
“Oh, I was ecstatic, like a huge gorilla was off my back, a huge weight,” says Blitch. “I knew where I was going. One of the hardest parts of the journey is not knowing.”
The journey is succinct; Bank of America Stadium is a 10-mile drive from the UNC Charlotte campus. Blitch is on campus Tuesday, working with former Carolina offensive lineman Kevin Donnalley, an intern in the school’s strength and conditioning program. But he’s staying in an apartment uptown from which he can see the stadium.
Charlotte “is where I wanted to be,” says Blitch. “I knew that, and my agent knew that. I’ve made some wonderful friends that are going to be lifelong. I love the city. I love being able to drive by the city and think, ‘Wow, this is where I live.’”
Ratliff, Blitch’s offensive line coach, is away from the city, recruiting in South Carolina. His schedule is jammed. But to talk about Blitch, he pulls over.
“He bought in,” Ratliff says. “He assumed a leadership role and gave younger players something to look up to. He worked in the weight room to reconfigure his body and get stronger.”
Blitch hit a too-heavy 356 pounds. To become the player Ratliff envisioned, Blitch worked on his body, getting up early and using a song, a motivational speech or a Ray Lewis video as incentive.
“He did nothing but get better and better every day,” says Ratliff. “He improved more than any player I’ve ever coached.”
How long have you coached?
Says Ratliff: “22 years.”
On Friday, Blitch will join 51 other players for Carolina’s two-day, three-session minicamp. He’ll compete with draft picks, rookie free agents, eligible players on the roster and other tryout players.
When the draft picks walk onto the field, everybody will know. Is it frustrating not to be one of them?
“Oh, no, no” says Blitch, smiling warmly. “I’ve already been more blessed than I could ever imagine, just being in the situation I’m in.
“Yeah, it would have been awesome to hear my name on ESPN. But that time will come.”
Sorensen: 704-358-5119; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @tomsorensen