Following a host of programs that shattered the FBS barrier in 2014, the Conference USA in particular will add one more affiliate for the upcoming season.
Enter the Charlotte 49ers, a program entering just the third year as a football representative. Led by head coach Brad Lambert, he’ll hope to make a lasting impression, but that statement is far easier said than done: the jump to the FBS appears rather lofty for Charlotte.
2014 Record (FCS): 5-6
Players to Watch: WR Austin Duke, DL Mark Pettit
Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Old Dominion all made the leap to the FBS in 2014, and each had the privilege to do so.
For the Mountaineers, former head coach Larry Moore had notched 19 consecutive winning seasons from 1994-2012. Add in the ever famous victory in the Big House circa 2007 and the hefty amount of talent that has carried over to the NFL, and Appalachian State was justified in its transition.
Georgia Southern stockpiled a .704 win percentage under Jeff Monken from 2010-13 and Bobby Wilder collected at least eight wins in all five seasons as the Monarchs’ ringleader at the FCS level. These three teams were beyond ready for the next big step, and frankly, all three performed well in the 2014.
Brad Lambert doesn’t have the gaudy win percentages of the names listed above, as he’s managed a couplet of 5-6 seasons as a representative of the FCS.
We had somewhat of an idea of Appalachian State and Old Dominion. The Mountaineers had been a powerhouse for some time in their division, and people expected them to fit in quite well with the additional Sun Belt teams.
You can say the same for the Monarchs, as they were carrying over a savvy offense that could hang with the rest of them, and like Appalachian State, possessed a similar scheme of most clubs in their respected bunch: throw, throw, throw and defense, ultimately optional.
While we seemingly know little about the 49ers, here’s what we’ve scrounged up.
It could very well be a three-man show on offense with quarterback Matt Johnson, tailback Kalif Phillips and wide receiver Austin Duke.
Johnson was slowed down by injuries in 2014, and didn’t impress on the stat sheet when he was on the field: just under 2,000 yards passing, a completion percentage at 52 percent, and a touchdown to interception ratio of 13-8. I understand Conference USA isn’t a defense-heavy group, but Johnson will need to develop and mature if he’s going to have any sort of success.
That initially starts with Duke, an extremely athletic receiver who nabbed third-team All-C-USA honors by Phil Steele. His 1,373 yards topped all 49ers wideouts by a large margin, Trent Bostick punching the clock behind his counterpart with 365. Duke’s been a regular playmaker for the offense and will be Johnson’s go-to target for 2015, as should carry the load once more.
I mentioned earlier in the week when previewing Old Dominion that the Monarchs were no one-trick pony in regards to quarterback Taylor Heinicke and the passing game. They balanced their offensive game with a successful run scheme, and Charlotte could perhaps do the same with Phillips.
While he doesn’t have the breakaway speed, he’s tremendous at hitting the hole quick and does a superb job of using his mobility in open space. He supplied a respectable 6.3 yards per rush in 2014 as Charlotte’s regular.
The line will be glued together by Jamal Covington, who joins Duke on Steele’s list. However, the preseason accolades stretch a lot further than just on a personal platform. Covington mentioned that the 49ers have an extremely balanced group up front for 2015.
“When you have phenomenal talent on the offensive line from players like Casey Perry, Thomas LaBianca, Daniel Book, and Jared Barr (just to name a few) its no mystery why we are the offensive line that we are,” Covington told Today’s U earlier this summer. “I am just blessed and honored to be apart of it.”
Perhaps the offense could act as Charlotte’s centerpiece for 2015, as Las Vegas sportsbooks are calling for nearly 70 combined points to be scored in its opener versus Georgia State. That, or they expect the defense to be highly inefficient once more.
It’s one thing to have experience, and it’s another to have experience that genuinely goes for naught.
If Charlotte returned all 11 regulars from 2014, we’d still be degrading the lackluster performance that should be endured this upcoming fall, as it seemed lost last year vs. FCS competition. Mark Pettit and Larry Ogunjobi head the defensive line with Caleb Claton-Mobley in the middle, the veteran linebacker with three years of experience.
Brandon Dozier and Prince Mayela round out the secondary, and a group that will interchange a ton of guys for this season, as eight players saw action in 2014.
Blake Brewer connected on 72 percent of his field goal tries last season, while Hayden Pezzoni is handed the job of punting away. Probably something Lambert hopes will happen at a stagnant rate, as the defensive woes will keep Charlotte from winning a majority of games in 2015.
I’m holding my breath and genuinely hoping that the 49ers go into Georgia State and knock off the Panthers to kickoff, all while grabbing a win versus Presbyterian in Week 2.
Primarily because that may be the limit for Charlotte.
Anyone that expects a .500 season doesn’t understand X’s and O’s, as this transition is a rather rugged one for a team failing to hit that mark in two seasons as FCS affiliates.
However, if you enjoy offense and back-and-forth football, flip over to the 49ers come Saturdays. The carry over won’t be exactly smooth, but there’s a vast amount of leeway to give this club as they head into unfamiliar territory.
2015 Prediction: 3-8, wins versus Georgia State, Presbyterian, UTSA