What a difference a year can make. As the football season comes to an end, the Charlotte football program has made strides into becoming a legitimate team on the Division I stage.
Take a look back at where the 49ers were at this time last year. Charlotte was coming off a 48-point beatdown at the hands of Kentucky and headed to Rice to conclude their dreaded season. As many know, Charlotte would lose to Rice and conclude their season with a 2-10 record. After beginning the season 2-0, Charlotte lost the final ten games on their schedule. The 49ers were losing 12 seniors to graduation, including a couple of key defenders in Caleb Clayton-Molby and Branden Dozier. Questions at the quarterback position plagued the team all year, as Charlotte started three different signal-callers. There wasn’t much excitement surrounding the football program.
This past offseason was the biggest test for Charlotte. And for coach Brad Lambert, he had a group of seniors that were ready to make the call.
“This (senior) class— we want to give them every opportunity to go out on top,” Lambert said after the spring game. “We’ve got a lot of confidence going into the summer. It’s a tough process to go through to put yourself in a position to be successful in September.”
It was the senior class that set the tone for the upcoming season. Players like Larry Ogunjobi, Kalif Phillips, and Austin Duke were a part of the program before the inaugural 2013 season. In all, Charlotte had 21 players from the original team, so age wasn’t a concern for the team.
There were murmurs of the possibility of a bowl game for the team. Looking at any team in the nation with 17 returning starters and a bowl game is definitely a goal.
But again, the quarterback position was still in question. Matt Johnson, Charlotte’s all-time passer, transitioned to an H-back role on offense. The 49ers added a pair of new quarterbacks in Kevin Olsen and Hasaan Klugh during the offseason. Olsen, a four-star recruit in high school and transfer from Miami (FL), won the job before the spring game and it appeared Charlotte finally had stability at the helm.
Fast forward to September as Charlotte became Lamar Jackson’s first victim in his Heisman campaign. Then, Kevin Olsen broke out against Elon in the next week, going 19 of 25 with three touchdowns. That would be the peak of Olsen though, as he would be replaced by Klugh, an NC A&T transfer, three games later due to inconsistency. At that point, Charlotte was 1-4.
Since becoming the starter, Klugh has gone 3-4, winning his first start ever against Florida Atlantic, and has scored 15 total touchdowns (eight passing and seven rushing). It appears Klugh, a redshirt sophomore, has a firm grasp as the starting quarterback for Charlotte heading into next season.
The rushing attack carried the 49ers offense again this season. Charlotte improved their rushing yards per game this season, jumping from 163.6 in 2015 to 176.2 this season. Philips did much of the work again concluding his career 907 rushing yards on the season, totaling 4,020 during his time at Charlotte. The drop-off won’t be too steep as Robert Washington will become the new engine, as he rushed for 489 yards and five touchdowns in his freshman season. Add in Klugh, 426 rushing yards, as well and the 49ers rushing attack will be a-ok.
As a whole, the offense improved this season, scoring another touchdown (17.5 to 25.2) and turning the ball over less (2.8 to 1.25) per game. Looking at those numbers, the offense became more efficient.
On the other side of the ball, the defense played exceptionally down the stretch. Charlotte gave up 27.7 points per game in their final seven games, opposed to 44.2 points in the first five. While the team only gave two fewer points per game compared to the 2015 squad, this year’s team generated turnovers. Charlotte ranked first in the Conference USA in interceptions with 16 and forced seven fumbles on the year. In total, Charlotte was able to score 75 points off those turnovers.
Ogunjobi finished his career at Charlotte, starting in all 46 games. The defensive tackle accepted an invitation to play in this year’s Senior Bowl after 13.5 tackles for loss and three sacks this year. Another senior that played well was linebacker Nick Cook, who finished the season as the only one-hundred tackle guy on the roster with 107 total. The 49ers will be able to rotate some new talent on the defensive front.
The 49ers will be able to rotate some new talent on the defensive front. Freshman Ben DeLuca finished third on the team in tackles with 68 to go along with two interceptions and one defensive touchdown and sophomore Ed Rolle was tied for first on the team with three interceptions.
At one point in the season, there were hopes of making a bowl game. While the team finished 4-8, the 49ers did double their win total from the previous season.
“Looking at 2016, it was a good step for us,” concluded Lambert. “We played good games against good teams and we won three in the conference so we just have to continue on this trajectory, keep recruiting hard and I think good things lie ahead for us.”