In a recent episode of Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody, around the 20-minute mark, Steven Godfrey and I were talking about college football start-up programs that might have potential under the right circumstances. Brad Lambert’s 49ers came up.
You know what school people were talking about the most at AFCA this year, and not because it was local? It was Charlotte. People were really, really shocked that Charlotte didn’t clean house, and I asked why. I couldn’t even name Charlotte’s head coach off the top of my head.
It’s a booming population, right? It’s a lot of people coming that don’t necessarily have families or provincial ties to one school or not. It’s a lot of people that aren’t necessarily from ‘college football country’ necessarily that are coming into Charlotte. The talent at some of the high schools is on the increase, and you have a school with no expectation and a program inside a major city -- they’ve got money, and they’ve got time. And all of those things are really, really appealing to a lot of head coaches.
Charlotte exists for a reason. I kind of bemoan those schools and what’s going on with Conference USA and the fact that they just can’t make money off of them. But from a coaching standpoint and from an “eventually winning football games” standpoint, I think Charlotte makes a ton of sense, and, I don’t want to go all “sleeping giant,” but I think you could turn that into an eight- to 10-game winner in the G5.
They went full-on youth movement this year, and I’m assuming that’s why he still has a job. The title of last year’s preview that I wrote is “Charlotte should become a successful startup ... in 2018 or so.” So there you go. I can’t imagine he’ll get ANOTHER year if he goes 1-11 this coming fall, but they return a ton of guys, and I think everyone understood that they’re in a youth movement.
Lambert, who spent 10 years on Jim Grobe’s staff at Wake Forest, appeared to be slowly moving the 49ers in the right direction since becoming their first head coach in 2011. After two 5-6 seasons as a transitioning FCS program and a 2-10 stumble in their 2015 FBS debut, they improved to 4-8 and 3-5 in Conference USA in 2016.
In last year’s preview, I wrote that “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.” I also noted that 2017 was probably going to see a setback.
Charlotte fielded rebuilt lines on both offense and defense and lost its top contributors at running back, receiver, linebacker, and cornerback. That proved too much to handle, especially when combined with injuries in the secondary and linebacking corps, and the 49ers fell to 1-11. They only allowed 22 more points but scored 132 fewer and lost three of four one-possession games.
Granted, part of the reason was the schedule — it got much tougher. Charlotte played eight FBS teams that finished with a winning record and seven that ranked 76th or higher in S&P+. Those numbers were merely six and three, respectively, in 2016. Per S&P+, the 49ers actually improved from 125th to 124th in S&P+.
With far more experience this time around, the 49ers have a chance to step forward against a slate that eases up a bit. But Lambert might need more than a “decent” step.
To be sure, the patience Charlotte is showing the 53-year-old Lambert might pay off down the line, either because he figures things out and gets rolling, or because it proves the next coach will have not only solid recruiting potential but also a patient boss. But this is probably Lambert’s last year unless he begins to show a lot more proof of concept, and he knows it — he brought in a pair of new coordinators, after all.
It’s the nicks and cuts that get you. Charlotte had a definitive big-play advantage over its opponents in 2017, at least if you look at the magnitude of the big plays themselves. The 49ers ranked 46th in offensive IsoPPP (which measures how big one’s successful plays are) and 10th in defensive IsoPPP. Looking only at the run game, they were 10th and ninth, respectively.
The problem: they were 126th in offensive success rate and 123rd in defensive success rate. Their big plays were bigger than their opponents’, but their opponents had far more big-play opportunities.
The run game was really close to something. Quarterback Hassan Klugh proved quite explosive in the open field, and backs Benny LeMay and Aaron McAllister were, at worst, above average in this regard. LeMay had 22 carries for 178 yards against FIU and 19 for 158 against NC A&T, McAllister had 22 for 157 against WKU, and Klugh had 25 for 140 in an upset of UAB.
The potential was obvious, but the inconsistency was devastating. Take those three great games away from LeMay and McAllister, and their averages plummet from a combined 5.2 yards per carry to 4.2. Charlotte allowed far too many negative plays and couldn’t get the job done in short-yardage situations.
They were all underclassmen, and they all return. Charlotte signed a mid-three-star freshman back in Terrick Smalls Jr., too. The line returns all three of its interior starters (including honorable mention all-conference guard Nate Davis), too. It’s not hard to see this running game taking off.
It might need at least a little bit of help from the passing game, though. The 49ers were extremely run-heavy, partially because of philosophy and partially because avoiding the pass was a very good idea. Klugh completed just 48 percent of his passes, and Charlotte ranked a dreadful 126th in Passing S&P+. And now he’s got two new starting tackles.
Lambert brought in an old hand to salvage this situation. Shane Montgomery spent four seasons as Miami (Ohio)’s head coach in the 2000s and spent the last eight years directing Youngstown State’s offense.
Montgomery’s offense was run-heavy under defense-first head coach Bo Pelini. In 2016, the Penguins reached the FCS title game with help from nearly 4,000 rushing yards, and despite turnover, they averaged another 223 rushing yards per game in 2017. But they were able to pass reasonably efficiently, too. This will be both vital and awfully difficult for him in his new job.
Klugh does get his three most efficient receiving options back, for whatever that’s worth. Slot receiver Mark Quattlebaum, wideout Workpeh Kofa, and H-back R.J. Tyler were all in the positive in terms of marginal efficiency, and because of this, leading big-play man Trent Bostick (14.9 yards per catch, albeit with a horrid minus-12 percent marginal efficiency) might not be missed all that much. That’s what Montgomery has to hope, anyway.
One has to assume this is going to be similarly run-heavy, but efficiency needs to pick up, either because the running is better or because the pass isn’t an outright anchor. The big-play potential is obvious, but without consistency, the big plays will remain few and far between.
Lambert took advantage of coaching turnover to make a potential upgrade at defensive coordinator: after Glenn Spencer was dismissed by Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State, Lambert scooped him up.
After Spencer first OSU defense ranked ninth in Def. S&P+, he settled into a predictable spot: his Pokes ranked 76th, 70th, 67th, and 70th over the last four seasons, generally producing standout position groups but never getting the pieces all put back together again.
At least he won’t have to face quite as many dynamite offenses in his new locale. He’ll also have one of the more experienced two-deeps in the country, one that occasionally played a bend-don’t-break routine pretty well (and often just bent and broke instead).
Charlotte did a great job of preventing big run plays, which probably says good things about the linebacking corps Spencer inherits. OLBs Juwan Foggie and Tyriq Harris and ILBs Jeff Gemmell and Anthony Butler combined for 24 tackles for loss, eight passes defensed, and nearly 40 percent of Charlotte’s havoc plays.
Granted, Charlotte didn’t have nearly enough havoc plays (128th in havoc rate), but the LBs were the closest thing to a positive that they had, and that was despite leading ILB Karrington King (now gone) playing only seven games. Spencer has something to work with here.
It’s harder to say that about the line. Despite decent linebacker play, Charlotte still ranked 121st in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and 129th in Adj. Sack Rate, and only two linemen showed any sort of disruptive presence: end Zach Duncan (seven TFLs) and Timmy Horne (three). They both return, but it’s unclear how much talent or depth surrounds them.
One thing is certain: if JUCO tackle Dantrell Barkley were to live up to his nearly four-star recruiting ranking, that would help immensely.
I feel a little better about the secondary, but only a little. Because of injuries and shuffling, only one defensive back (reserve safety Markevis Davis) played in all 12 games. That meant constant personnel instability. The result: a 69 percent completion rate allowed and a No. 126 Passing S&P+ ranking.
There’s disruptive potential, though. Safety Ben DeLuca broke up six passes and forced five fumbles, and corner Quinton Jordan combined five breakups with three TFLs. And of the seven DBs who recorded at least 20 tackles, six return, and three were either freshmen or sophomores. The ceiling is higher than last year’s numbers suggest, especially if Spencer’s chosen starters can stay on the field.
You know what has to be just about the most demoralizing thing in the world? When your struggling offense actually creates a scoring chance, but you miss a field goal. Charlotte did a lot of that in 2017.
A trio of Charlotte kickers combined to go just 4-for-7 on field goals under 40 yards and a ghastly 0-for-6 on field goals 40 and over. They also missed three PATs for good measure. That earned a last-place ranking in place-kicking efficiency and dragged an otherwise mediocre unit to 121st in Special Teams S&P+.
All three kickers are scheduled to return (and it should be noted that one of them, senior Nigel Macauley, was solid in the kickoffs department), but the 49ers will need a new punter and new return men.
2018 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|20-Oct||at Middle Tennessee||83||-14.8||20%|
|24-Nov||at Florida Atlantic||31||-26.3||6%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||126|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||126 / 101|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||-17.9 (129)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||112 / 120|
|2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-9 / -3.7|
|2017 TO Luck/Game||-2.2|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||80% (71%, 89%)|
|2017 Second-order wins (difference)||1.2 (-0.2)|
If you’re an optimistic Charlotte fan, there are things to like here.
- You’ve got massive potential in the run game and at linebacker.
- Your secondary isn’t a M*A*S*H unit anymore.
- You’ve got two seasoned coordinators who might have some new ideas.
- Your schedule features eight teams projected 83rd or worse in S&P+ (including seven in the first eight games).
- There are reasons to believe your team has the potential to overachieve its own S&P+ projections, which already say you’re going to multiply last season’s win total by four.
If you are a more pessimistic Charlotte fan, you have plenty of more tangible evidence. Your team has not yet ranked better than 124th in S&P+, your passing game is a hot mess, and Spencer might have to perform a couple of miracles to conjure defensive depth and a few more play-makers.
This is Lambert’s last stand, and while he’s got a chance at fulfilling the optimists’ projections, the pessimists are probably a bit more grounded in reality.