Charlotte football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the 49ers, best players and season prediction.
The toughest part of the transition is over. Charlotte now hopes to take the next step in its evolution as an FBS program.
As expected, the 49ers endured their lumps as a Conference USA member, losing the final 10 games after opening with wins over Georgia State and Presbyterian. But everyone, from the fans and the administration to head coach Brad Lambert, realized this was going to be a process when the program first began operation only five years ago.
Despite the steady drumbeat of blowout losses, last season was an important stepping stone for Charlotte. After contemplating what life might be like as a member of college football’s highest division, the team experienced firsthand what will be needed to actually thrive in college football’s highest division. With a few psychological barriers lifted, the 49ers are now aiming to be less of a pushover in 2016.
Offensive optimism comes from the arrival of transfer QB Kevin Olsen, who came aboard via the junior college route, but was once a heralded Miami signee. Provided he has his act together—on and off the field—Olsen could be the answer for an offense that lacked competency under center a year ago. And if there’s even a little more pop and potential through the air, it’s going to help spring the team’s two best skill guys, RB Kalif Phillips and WR Austin Duke.
The defense is a collection of grinders that showed flashes of potential in 2015. There were also the occasional moments when the bottom fell out, but the problems were hardly unexpected. NT Larry Ogunjobi will again be the headliner and the team’s one defender who operates like he’s been occupying FBS backfields for his entire college career. Surrounding No. 65 is a collection of try-hard 49ers who’ll be looking to plug some of the holes in the run defense that were exposed last fall.
Brick by brick, Charlotte continues to build under Lambert, methodically striding toward the day when it can perennially compete for bowl berths and even title contention. Right now, the 49ers remain a step behind the balance of Conference USA, still lacking the depth and talent to measure progress in wins and losses. However, with so many returning starters, as well as the presence of Olsen at quarterback, Charlotte won’t be the layup it was in 2015.
What You Need to Know About the Charlotte Offense
An offense that was so potent against lesser competition got exposed versus Conference USA defenses in 2015. The line was whipped, the skill players were neutralized and the team decayed into a turnover machine. The recovery won’t happen immediately, though there is reason for hope this season.
Nearly every starter returns, including all-time leading rusher Kalif Phillips, last year’s top three receivers and underrated LT Jamal Covington. Even better, the 49ers might mercifully have an answer at quarterback now that Kevin Olsen is on board.
The former ballyhooed Miami recruit has already won the starting job, bringing optimism to a position that was an unmitigated disaster in 2015. Plus, with Olsen solidifying the quarterback spot, Charlotte has been able to shift former starter Matt Johnson to a superback role that’ll accentuate his rugged short-yardage running style. If Olsen can deliver, the 49ers can’t help but be more consistent with the ball this fall.
Biggest Key To The Offense
Welcome, Matt. Charlotte’s all-time leading passer Matt Johnson wasn’t even in the race for the quarterback job this spring, but he’ll still have an impact in the backfield. The 6-3, 233-pound senior has a new home as a hybrid running back, who’ll be used in a variety of unique roles, including taking direct snaps in “wildcat” formations. For a team that struggled on third downs, Johnson will be a particular asset in short yardage and goal line situations.
What You Need to Know About the Charlotte Defense
Hidden beneath the 36-point scoring average and meltdowns versus Middle Tennessee and Kentucky was a plucky defense that played with a lot of heart and an underrated ability to limit chunk yards. Charlotte hopes to build on 2015 with help from a veteran unit that welcomes back all but a pair of starters, LB Caleb Clayton-Molby and S Branden Dozier.
Based on experience alone, the 49ers ought to be a little tougher to navigate this season. The secondary was ahead of the front seven, even though NT Larry Ogunjobi is by far the defense’s top performer. And three starting defensive backs return, led by ball-hawking CB Terrance Winchester.
It’s on the perimeter and at linebacker where Charlotte hopes to be more consistent, particularly in the open field. Since the team produced only 21 sacks a season ago, everyone is going to benefit if ends Zach Duncan and Brandon Banks and outside linebackers Daquan Lucas and Jordan Starnes can harass opposing quarterbacks on a more consistent basis.
Biggest Key To The Defense
Young McDonald. The 49ers have few defensive holes to fill this summer, but the safety spot once handled by Branden Dozier is one of them. Fortunately, a redshirt freshman, AJ McDonald, is stepping up to seize the opening. McDonald has performed well throughout the offseason, looking as if he could be in the lineup alongside junior Markevis Davis when Charlotte travels to Louisville for the opener.
Charlotte will be far better if …
drastically cuts down on its number of turnovers. The 49ers didn’t have the talent to match up well with the rest of Conference USA in 2015. But the situation was exacerbated by 35 turnovers, including 23 interceptions. There’s hope that with improved stability and decision-making behind center in 2016, Charlotte will be less prone to the kinds of crushing mistakes that placed the defense in untenable positions throughout last fall.
Best Offensive Player
Senior RB Kalif Phillips. Phillips has set the standard for future backs in Charlotte, tallying school-best numbers for touchdowns, rushing yards and 100-yard games. He was also the 49ers’ only all-league player, so he’s proven he can continue to thrive against a higher level of competition. Plus, Phillips is poised to build on his junior year now that Charlotte figures to be in a better situation in the passing game.
Best Defensive Player
Senior NT Larry Ogunjobi. The 49ers had one All-Conference USA performer on each side of the ball last season. Fortunately, both are back for a final season of eligibility. Ogunjobi will again anchor the defense from the middle, giving the team a gap-buster who’ll help free up ends Zach Duncan and Brandon Banks and outside linebackers Daquan Lucas and Jordan Starnes. Ogunjobi’s quickness and closing speed belie his 6-3 and 294-pound frame.
Key Player to a Successful Season
Junior QB Kevin Olsen. Charlotte has landed a former four-star recruit of the Miami Hurricanes, a huge deal in terms of perception and overall talent level. Olsen has predictably jumped to the head of the pack on a team that ranked 118th nationally in passing efficiency and 126th in interceptions a year ago. The brother of Carolina Panther TE Greg Olsen won’t need to hoist the attack on his shoulders, but he does need to maximize the talent of receivers Austin Duke, Trent Bostick and TL Ford.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
the 49ers pick up their first-ever league victory … plus three other games on the schedule. Charlotte now has a season of Conference USA experience under their belt, as well as 18 returning starters. There’s no reason for this program not to be more competitive in 2016, even if the final tally still winds up being a losing season. The 49ers need to break through against the likes of Eastern Michigan, Old Dominion and Florida International to build some momentum to carry into 2017.
Oct. 1 vs. Old Dominion. The 49ers and the Monarchs are similarly embryonic programs looking to gain traction in Conference USA. And as such, there’s a rivalry about to develop between two schools from neighboring states that compete for many of the same recruits. Charlotte will be seeking revenge for last year’s loss, a 37-34 heartbreaker on a David Washington touchdown pass with 2:18 left in the game.
2015 Fun Stats
– Scoring: Charlotte 17.5 – Opponents 36.2
– Sacks: Charlotte 21 – Opponents 42
– Interceptions thrown: Charlotte 23 – Opponents 10