Saturday, April 23, marks the beginning of the fourth season of Charlotte football.
The lights at Jerry Richardson will be on, with the game scheduled for a 7 p.m kickoff. Last year, the 49ers made their debut in major college football by competing in Conference USA. After beginning the season with their only two victories, including a thriller against Georgia State in the Georgia Dome, Charlotte dropped the remainder of their games. While there wasn’t much expectation surrounding the newest FBS program, a 2-10 debut record was a tough pill to swallow for Niner Nation.
The spring game on Saturday is a coming out party for the players. An opportunity for players to showcase their talent, and more importantly, separate themselves from their competition. Coaches will learn how players perform in a game setting. Fans will watch for big plays and watch for any changes from season past. But more importantly, the spring game means that another football season at Jerry Richardson Stadium is right around the corner.
“We want the guys to go out and have fun,” head coach Brad Lambert said. “Put them in the environment, put on the uniform, get in the stadium and get the fans to come out. It’s going to be a great day on campus.”
Here is a look at both sides of the ball for the 2016 Charlotte 49ers:
To begin, the offense for Charlotte last year was not their strength, ranking in the bottom of every major offensive stat in C-USA. But, the offense is also the side of the ball that has gone through the most transition.
The quarterback position is the most important position on the field. Anybody that watches football knows that. For Charlotte, the quarterback position was a mystery last year. The 49ers started three different quarterbacks in Lee McNeill, Matt Johnson and Brooks Barden. None of which threw for more touchdowns than interceptions.
Johnson has shifted into a hybrid quarterback-running back position, better known as the “wildcat” position. Barden has been sidelined with a broken collarbone that he suffered during a spring practice.
Coach Lambert named Kevin Olsen, brother of Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, as the starting quarterback to begin the season. NC A&T transfer Hassan Klugh will backup Olsen.
“It was a tough competition and I can’t look any more forward to try and help this team,” Olsen said on winning the starting job. “I would consider myself a thrower first, and after that, I can make plays with my legs.”
The running game carried the 49ers offense last season. Second-team all C-USA rusher Kalif Phillips will return for his senior season after compiling 961 rushing yards and five touchdowns last season. While Phillips will see limited time in the spring game, there will be opportunities for other running backs to state their case for playing time, namely Charlotte’s all-time passing leader.
“I’ve been really proud of Matt Johnson,” Lambert said. “Matt has shown a lot of improvement over the last two weeks as a running back and could see his role expand in August camp.”
Add in Charlotte’s prized recruits, Robert Washington and Ben LeMay, the running back group looks to pick up where they left off at the end of the 2015 season.
The receiver position will see much of the same faces this year. The top three pass catchers from last season: Austin Duke, Trent Bostick and T.L. Ford, return. Duke, Charlotte’s all-time leader in receiving, may have a bigger role this year. Known for his game-breaking ability, Duke has taken reps as a punt returner in practice.
Charlotte relied on the defensive unit heavily last season. Rightfully so, as well. The 49ers ranked fourth in C-USA against the pass. That same unit will return eight starters from last season.
The defensive line will be led by second-team C-USA nose tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who recorded 14.5 tackles for loss last year. Ogunjobi has been recovering from a torn labrum and has been limited in practice. Something to watch for is how the 49ers defensive line will generate pressure. Of course, in spring games the quarterback isn’t allowed to take hits, but it will be interesting to watch how last season’s sack leader Zach Duncan and others have grown.
While the secondary is returning the majority of their starters last season, but one question remains. Who will be the next starting safety?
“We’re missing some guys there [safety i] right now,” Lambert said. “I think that will be a critical position moving forward.”
Redshirt freshman A.J. McDonald is the frontrunner heading into the spring game, but a name to look out for is Markevis Davis, who started three games last year. Davis is currently rehabbing from off-season surgery and hasn’t been able to go full speed, according to Lambert.
The defense has seen a handful of injuries [Ogunjobi, Davis and last year’s tackle leader Nick Cook] to starters this spring, but coach Lambert sees it as a positive.
“The younger guys are getting a lot of reps and it allows us to develop a little bit of depth as we move into August.”