(Part 14 of a 14-part Conference USA preview series)
Entering its fifth year of football, Charlotte is seeking to build on last season's progress.
After a 1-4 start, the 49ers won three of four games against Conference USA foes, including road victories over Florida Atlantic (28-23), Marshall (27-24) and Southern Miss (38-27). The only loss during that span was a 27-26 heartbreaker against Florida International.
Charlotte finished 4-8 overall (3-5 C-USA), with three one-possession losses.
Coach Brad Lambert, the 49ers' coach since the program's inception in 2013, greets six returning starters on both sides of the ball, but must replace 27 lettermen from the first signing class in school history.
Charlotte averaged 25.2 points per game last fall — up from 17.5 in 2015 — and ranked second in the conference in turnover margin (plus-7). Besides ranking 11th in the 13-team circuit in scoring, the 49ers were sixth in rushing (176.8 ypg), 12th in passing (192.8 ypg) and 10th in total offense (369.5 ypg)
Junior Hasaan Klugh returns to direct the offense after completing 120-of-224 passes for 1,356 yards with 10 touchdown and just three picks in 11 games. He also rushed for 426 yards and eight touchdowns.
Kalif Phillips, the school's all-time leader with 4,020 rushing yards and 43 TDs, leaves big shoes to fill in the backfield. Sophomores Robert Washington (97 carries, 489 yards, 5 TDs) and Benny LeMay (34-175) and true freshman Kameron Duncan are being counted on to take up the slack.
Senior T.L. Ford II (36 receptions, 430 yards, 4 TDs) and junior Workpeh Kofa (27-329-5) are a pair of proven wide receivers. Additionally, Trent Bostick (32-457-3 in 2015) is back in the mix after taking a redshirt year.
Junior right guard Nate Davis (18 career starts) is the pillar of the offensive line. Also back are junior left tackle Chris Brown and senior right tackle Eugene German.
Defensively, the 49ers were seventh in C-USA in points allowed (34.6 ppg), second against the run (143.4 ypg), 13th against the pass (309.8 ypg) and 10th in total yardage (453.3 ypg).
Charlotte has a void to fill up front after the loss of first-team All-Conference USA nose tackle Larry Ogunjobi, the school's first NFL draftee (third round, Cleveland Browns).
Junior Tyler Fain and sophomore John Hardy are the top candidates for Ogunjobi's vacated spot, with senior Nick Carroll (22 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack) and sophomore Randy Suydam (18 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack) manning the ends.
Nick Cook (108 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2 sacks), the team's leading tackler, is missing from the linebacker corps. Senior Karrington King (73 tackles, 5 TFL 2 sacks) needs just 13 stops to surpass Ogunjobi as the 49ers' all-time career tackles leader. Sophomore Tyriq Harris (46 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 sacks), another holdover, is projected to be joined in the starting lineup by sophomores Jeff Gemmell (27 tackles) and Anthony Butler (18 tackles). Gemmell and Butler both saw action in all 12 games.
Free safety Ben DeLuca (68 tackles, 2 interceptions), a 2016 Freshman All-American, is among three returnees in the secondary, along with junior strong safety Ed Rolle (49 tackles, 3 INTs) and sophomore strong safety AJ McDonald (45 tackles). Junior college transfer Marquavis Gibbs and redshirt freshman Robert Cheatem are the leading candidates to crack the starting rotation at cornerback.
Senior Arthur Hart (69 punts, 39.2-yard average) is back, with Virginia Tech transfer Jackson Vansickle assuming the kicking chores.
2017 CHARLOTTE SCHEDULE
(All times Central and subject to change)
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Sept. 1 (Fri.) at Eastern Michigan 5:30 p.m.
Sept. 9 at Kansas State 11 a.m.
Sept. 16 North Carolina A&T 5 p.m.
Sept. 23 Georgia State 5 p.m.
Sept. 30 at FIU* 6 p.m.
Oct. 7 Marshall* 5 p.m.
Oct. 14 at WKU* 3:30 p.m.
Oct. 21 UAB* 5:30 p.m.
Nov. 4 at Old Dominion* 2:30 p.m.
Nov. 11 Middle Tennessee* 1 p.m.
Nov. 18 at Southern Miss* 2 p.m.
Nov. 25 Florida Atlantic* 1 p.m.