As eatured in the Charlotte Observer Sunday, June 24, 2012
By: David Scott
It is mid-afternoon on a mid-June day, and there is a kind of understated intensity in the Charlotte 49ers’ football offices.
Defensive coordinator Bruce Tall walks quickly down the hall to his office. Director of football operations Trevor Lambert is holed up in his office, huddled over a laptop. Offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen and offensive line coach Phil Ratliff watch film in a darkened meeting room. Defensive backs coach James Adams grabs a snack in the break room.
Charlotte’s first football game – Aug. 31, 2013, against Campbell in the 49ers’ soon-to-be-completed on-campus stadium – is still 14 months away. There are no players on campus yet, no fields to practice on, no weight room in which to lift.
That’s all coming soon enough. But the 49ers’ preparations for football were ratcheted up in early May when they accepted an invitation to join Conference USA and play in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly I-A) in 2015 (the rest of the 49ers’ teams will start in C-USA in 2013).
“That made us change some things,” said Charlotte coach Brad Lambert, whose program will play as a Football Championship (formerly I-AA) independent in 2013 and ’14. “We feel good about where we are, but we’ve had to make some adjustments.”
Lambert said the primary change has come in recruiting, where Charlotte has to add to its numbers by 2015 to meet the FBS scholarship limit of 85. But scheduling, fundraising and additions to the stadium are also being addressed as the 49ers are fast-tracked to college football’s highest division.
The 49ers signed 26 players to their first recruiting class in February. They arrive on campus in August and will practice this fall for an inaugural season that will still be a year away. Lambert planned on adding 15 more in 2013 as the program would gradually meet the limit of 63 scholarships allowed in FCS.
Now, with an 85-scholarship limit in FBS, Lambert said Charlotte will probably sign 26 players next year. By 2015, Charlotte’s first year in Conference USA, he hopes to have the full allotment of 85.
“It could be a few less than that,” Lambert said. “We don’t want a bunch of kids jammed into these first three classes, because then we won’t be able to sign as many in ’15. So we’re kind of balancing all that.”
According to Rivals.com, Charlotte has made offers to 31 players who will be high school seniors next season. Some have already signed elsewhere – to FBS schools such as Virginia, N.C. State, Michigan, Arizona and West Virginia. But Charlotte has also offered players such as Independence High cornerback Jack Tocho, who is also considering N.C. State, Air Force, Navy, Army, and Ball State.
“Charlotte has come in here from the start and looked for the best athletes we have,” said Independence High coach Bill Geiler. “I don’t really think they feel like they have to improve on the quality of player they’re going after. They’ve always looked at our best guys.” Most of the recruits the 49ers signed in February were also pursued by other regional FCS programs or Division II teams.
“Last year, we really didn’t know who we were competing against,” Lambert said. “It might have been (FCS schools) Coastal Carolina or Furman or Appalachian State. But we know we’re not going to be competing against a school like (Division II) Catawba any more. Now the focus is on guys who also have a chance to go to places like East Carolina and Marshall. “We’re going to have to win some of those recruiting battles.”
Lambert said he has also expanded the 49ers’ recruiting footprint from mostly in the Carolinas and Georgia to states such as Texas and Florida, which also have Conference USA schools.
Lambert hopes many of the players he signs in 2013 will be junior-college transfers or others transferring in from four-year schools. “We want to put some age on the team,” he said. “The unknown factor is really the transfers. There might be a guy who is the backup quarterback at Wake Forest, or wherever, who can’t play because the guy in front of him is really good. We wouldn’t know about that until next season and then we’d have to hear from him. We can’t talk to him until he is released by his school.”
The 49ers’ move to Conference USA also means some schedule juggling is necessary. Charlotte must play at least five home games against FBS schools when they move up – and four of them will be C-USA opposition in a 12-game schedule. Charlotte has four other games scheduled now in 2015: home against FCS teams Georgia Southern and Presbyterian and away against FCS Furman and Georgia State (which will be FBS in 2015).
So it appears Charlotte will need to drop one of those nonconference games – it won’t be Georgia State, which Lambert hopes to keep as a regular nonconference rival – and add a home game against an FBS team. Lambert said Charlotte has been fishing around the Mid-American and Sun Belt conferences and has also approached Temple about playing.
Charlotte’s 15,300-seat stadium, which is expected to be finished in September, likely won’t look the same when the 49ers begin FBS play in 2015 as it will be when the 49ers face Campbell in August 2013. The stadium can be expanded to 40,000 permanently and could also hold 25,000 with temporary seating.
Athletics director Judy Rose said she wants to wait and see what kind of attendance the 49ers have in 2013 before deciding on whether to expand, and by how much. “My recommendation is to hold off and wait,” Rose said. “I don’t want to add seats unnecessarily. Obviously I hope there’s a huge demand.”
Rose said the move to Conference USA means a video scoreboard has been added to the stadium. Lights also will be installed by 2015.
Rose continues to raise the money necessary to fund a football budget that will jump from $6 million annually in FCS to between $8-16 million for FBS. Those funds will come from the usual sources for a college athletics department: ticket sales, alumni donations and sponsorships.
Charlotte is also selling permanent seat licenses at $1,000 each – 3,970 of 5,000 have been sold. Naming rights worth $5 million for the stadium are still for sale, although the school already has sold the rights to parts of the facility: McColl-Richardson Field and Halton Field House.
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