You know what? Good for head coach Brad Lambert and Charlotte. You might as well go big and fail hard when everyone is expecting you to fail anyway. Absolutely nothing was expected of Charlotte in its first season, and the team hinted at some upside (particularly on defense) in the process of routine poundings.
Experience isn't always good experience, but Charlotte returns a core of players who know exactly what is expected of them. And since they play in Conference USA, their slate features quite a few potential wins.
How do you measure progress? When you’re a program that has literally never succeeded before, you keep it simple.
In Charlotte's second year at the FBS level and only the fourth year of its existence, the 49ers doubled their win total from two to four and moved from 0-8 to 3-5 in Conference USA play. They went from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.2. They lost three games by one possession after losing only one such game in 2015. They were more competitive within their environment. And then, per the 247Sports Composite, Lambert signed the No. 9 class in Conference USA after signing No. 12 the year before.
But were they actually any better? Probably not, according to the advanced stats. They did improve from 127th to 119th in Off. S&P+, but that's marginal. Meanwhile, they fell from 94th to 108th on defense despite experience and hope for improvement.
The extra wins were nice, but three came against either FCS competition or teams ranked 115th or worse in S&P+. The 49ers also lost to the No. 120 and 121 teams. They played three teams in the top 75 and lost those three games by a combined 170-51.
There's still a ways to go, in other words. But hey, it's not like Charlotte and its fans didn't know that. Might as well lean on the positives.
Lambert has put together an interesting set of career experiences so far. He played for Kansas State from 1983-86, when the program was nearing its nadir (the Wildcats won nine games in his four years), and landed a graduate assistant job on Barry Switzer's final Oklahoma team. He followed former OU assistant Jim Donnan to Marshall and Georgia, then spent a decade on Jim Grobe's staff at Wake Forest. That's a unique combination of underdog and powerhouse experience.
Lambert then took a job at a startup. Charlotte hired him in March 2011, and he had to wait two years to coach a game. The 49ers went a semi-encouraging 10-12 in two years at the FCS level (2013-14), then hit FBS with a two-win thud in 2015.
It's impossible to judge how things should be going. Charlotte is in the middle of a football hotbed, but he's got no history to sell. And while other startups have been able to find success quickly (South Alabama, UTSA), it's still only been two years.
Charlotte enters 2017 with a potentially exciting backfield and major questions on the offensive line and in the passing game. On defense, a disappointing unit has to replace its two best linemen (including the program's soon-to-be first ever draft pick, tackle Larry Ogunjobi), its leading tackler at linebacker, and maybe its best cornerback. There are promising youngsters working their way up the depth chart, but it feels like this will be another year of progress-in-name-only before the 49ers can build some real traction.
Of course, the schedule does feature eight teams projected 90th or worse in S&P+. Just a little bit of actual progress might result in more improvement in the win total.
2016 in review
If you noticed Charlotte only once last year, it was probably while the 49ers were getting posterized in the season opener against Louisville. Lamar Jackson made an early Heisman statement by completing 17 of 23 passes for 286 yards and six touchdowns and rushing 11 times for 119 yards and two more scores. Charlotte tried to go after him early and got burned; the 49ers went more passive and got burned more.
It got better. Eventually. After a romp over Elon, the 49ers lost their next three FBS games, all to eventual bowl teams (EMU, Temple, ODU), by an average of 46-19. But following a quarterback change and a let-up in the schedule, they figured some things out.
- First 4 games vs. FBS teams (0-4) — Average percentile performance: 25% | Yards per play: Opp 7.5, Niners 4.3 (minus-3.2)
- Next 4 games (3-1) — Average percentile performance: 38% | Yards per play: Niners 5.7, Opp 5.3 (plus-0.4)
- Last 3 games (0-3) — Average percentile performance: 11% | Yards per play: Opp 5.6, Niners 4.1 (minus-1.5)
The offense ran out of steam, and while the defense had rebounded from a dreadful start, it couldn’t do quite enough to make up the difference.
A solid stretch in October got the 49ers to 4-5 and within spitting distance of bowl eligibility, but tight home losses to a bad Rice and an MTSU without its starting quarterback ended those hopes. And with six wins off the table, Charlotte laid an egg in the season finale against UTSA.
The questions for 2017: Was October a sign of things to come? Or did some depth chart adjustments find a temporary advantage that opponents accounted for and erased? The answer could make the difference between 3-9 and a bowl bid.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen has been in Charlotte since Lambert's introductory press conference. A fellow member of the Grobe tree (he was a Wake assistant from 2001-07 and an Ohio assistant under Grobe before that), he has attempted to deploy a run-first, tempo-heavy system. The results have been mixed.
In theory, though, Mullen found a quarterback last year. And it sort of came out of nowhere. In fact, I listed six quarterbacks in last year's Charlotte preview ... and a seventh eventually won the job.
Hassan Klugh played in seven games as a true freshman at NC A&T in 2014; he was named MEAC rookie of the week after completing 13 of 17 passes against Hampton. But he transferred to Charlotte in 2015 and joined an impossibly crowded depth chart in 2016. Three QBs had thrown at least 87 passes in 2015, and all returned. Plus, three-star JUCO transfer Kevin Olsen and well-regarded freshman Joe Thompson were joining the mix.
Olsen began as the starter but struggled. During UNCC's ragged four early games against bowl teams, he completed just 61 of 130 for 607 yards, three scores, and three picks. Passer rating: an abysmal 89.1. Klugh eased into the lineup, and during Charlotte's 3-1 midseason run, he produced a completion rate of 61 percent and a passer rating of 130.4 while rushing for 218 yards.
Klugh faded, completing just 41 percent during the season-ending three-game losing streak. But he may have flashed enough potential to take the starting job into 2017, especially since Olsen might no longer be an option. And if a restructured line can function at a reasonable level, then one could see the run game taking off.
Klugh might not be the primary reason for optimism, though. It's hard not to get excited about sophomore Robert Washington. A mid-three-star recruit, Washington had ups and downs as a freshman, but the highs were high. Against Louisville, EMU, FIU, and Southern Miss, he rushed 37 times for 280 yards (7.6 per carry) and two touchdowns. He's sturdily built at 5'11, 220 pounds, and he hinted at a nice combination of efficiency and explosiveness.
Of course, in his other eight games, he rushed 60 times for just 209 yards. But he was a freshman.
The line could be an issue. Honorable mention guard Nate Davis returns, as do four others who combined for 23 starts a year ago. Plus, Lambert signed three JUCO transfers up front. But three three-year starters have departed.
If Washington and the re-crafted line don’t result in run efficiency, then any sort of efficiency will probably be an issue, just as it was last year.
That’s because the passing game was ... lacking. Klugh’s arm is far from amazing, and his go-to guy, slot receiver Austin Duke, the only primary receiver to average more than 8.1 yards per target and one of only two to post a 40 percent success rate, is gone.
Some combination of senior T.L. Ford II, junior Workpeh Kofa, and sophomore Nate Mullen, might provide reliability, but they didn't prove a ton last year.
Really, the most interesting aspect of Charlotte's passing game might be the H-back position. The Niners have tons of them, from three-star sophomore Michael Holmes to redshirt freshman Ryan Carriere to JUCO transfers Chris Phillips and Ryan Eachus. They haven't proven a damn thing, but Lambert sure is signing a lot of them.
I was pretty bullish about coordinator Matt Wallerstedt's defense. The 49er attack wasn't great in 2015, but it was aggressive, and it seemed like they returned the right pieces to raise some hell in 2016.
It didn't happen. The loss of safeties Branden Dozier (expected) and Devin Pearson (unexpected) hurt quite a bit, and starting cornerback Terrance Winchester wasn't able to stay on the field.
That rendered the secondary a shell of its former self. Led by Larry Ogunjobi, the run defense thrived, improving from 101st to 43rd in Rushing S&P+. But the pass defense sank from 63rd to 108th in Passing S&P+, and that was a massive problem in the pass-happy Conference USA.
Opponents didn't even pretend to try to run the ball; the 49ers faced runs on just 50 percent of standard downs (122nd in the country) and on 26 percent of passing downs (123rd). Charlotte was bad at the one thing you can't be bad at in C-USA.
That better change in 2017 because the primary reason for the strong run defense is gone, as are his steadiest dance partners.
Ogunjobi, end Brandon Banks, and inside linebacker Nick Cook combined for 151 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, and eight passes defensed in 2016; they're all gone. So is backup tackle Tanner Fleming.
Linebacker still appears to be stocked — senior Karrington King is solid, and the sophomore foursome of Tyriq Harris (more a nickel than a linebacker), Jeff Gemmell, Alex Highsmith, and Anthony Butler is exciting. But with nothing but unknowns at nose tackle, the linebackers' jobs could be far more difficult.
Last year's bad news in the secondary could become this year's good news. Or at least, maybe 2018's good news. The Charlotte secondary ended up led by three freshman safeties last fall. Inexperience at the back brings obvious issues. The 49ers allowed a 63 percent completion rate, 107th in the country. Still, Ben DeLuca, Ed Rolle, and AJ McDonald did combine for 4.5 TFLs, five sacks, and seven breakups. They could be dangerous once they know what they're doing.
Corner Terrance Winchester's inability to stay in the lineup meant more playing time for the guys who would become his replacements in 2017. Juniors Alex Duncan and Denzel Irvin and sophomore Nafees Lyon all saw decent playing time; if one steps up to complement senior Anthony Covington, Charlotte's secondary could turn around quite a bit. It will need to.
Charlotte's special teams unit was quite subpar overall, ranking 115th in punt efficiency, 110th in kickoff efficiency and above 80th in only one category: punt returns. And even in that category, there was no explosiveness whatsoever.
It probably doesn't matter that much, then, that the 49ers are breaking in a new place-kicker, kickoffs guy, and punt returner. You can only sink so much further than 115th.
2017 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|2-Sep||at Eastern Michigan||96||-14.8||20%|
|9-Sep||at Kansas State||35||-30.9||4%|
|30-Sep||at Florida International||104||-13.0||23%|
|14-Oct||at Western Kentucky||51||-27.6||6%|
|4-Nov||at Old Dominion||93||-15.8||18%|
|18-Nov||at Southern Miss||84||-17.8||15%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||127|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||119 / 117|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||-17.3 (125)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||119 / 116|
|2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||8 / 5.6|
|2016 TO Luck/Game||+1.0|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||61% (63%, 59%)|
|2016 Second-order wins (difference)||3.8 (0.2)|
The most positive thing I can say about Charlotte in 2017 is that most of the assets will be back in 2018. There are a few solid seniors, but Hassan Klugh, Workpeh Kofa, and Nate Davis are juniors, and Robert Washington and most of the linebacking corps and defensive backs are sophomores.
It's hard to imagine Charlotte improving too much this fall, but you can see a solid core to build around for next year and beyond.
I guess there's one more positive: there are a lot of bad teams in Conference USA. Including non-conference home games against NC A&T and Georgia State, the 49ers play five teams projected 101st or worse and another five projected between 84th and 99th.
If the run game gels, the secondary improves as planned, and the run defense doesn't fall apart — and none of those ifs are unrealistic — it's not hard to figure out how Charlotte gets to five or six wins.
Still, I'm holding off on setting any expectations for one more year. Charlotte should be able to further craft its identity this fall, but Lambert gets another year before the pressure starts.