Amidst the running, the hitting, the yelling, and the whistles of practice, is the occasionally cry of “Game Week!”
The UNC Charlotte 49ers football team is excited. The team plays its first game on Saturday, at home, against the Campbell Camels, more than five years after the school’s Board of Trustees approved the program. The team has been practicing for more than a year. Wide receiver Mikel Hunter says he’s looking forward to just playing against someone who’s not on his own team.
“Just ready to see some new faces,” says Hunter, who transferred from the Air Force Academy. “We’ve been practicing against each other for a long time, just ready to see some new faces out there. Just ready to see some new guys out there, hit some new people.”
Hunter is one of the team’s few veterans, most have not played in a game since high school. Redshirt freshman and starting quarterback Matt Johnson graduated from Maiden High in Catawba County. He calls it tough not having anyone older to learn from, but says he is prepared.
“We’re not the same as any other freshman in the country because we have to perform on Day One,” says Johnson. “I think that’s helped us a lot, and even though I’m going into uncharted waters, I think I have a coach ahead of me who has prepared me well for it.”
Johnson will lead an up-tempo, spread offense for the 49ers. That means keeping a fast pace, to keep the other team’s defense worn out and off-balance. And, the Niners defense has to prepare for the same thing from their opponents. So, practice is a whirl of motion. On one field, linebackers practice blitzes. Behind them, pads crack as defensive lineman practice hitting. To the side of them, red-shirts do the same drills. A new period begins, everyone runs to their next drill, and the organized chaos whirls again.
“We want to play fast, and so that’s the way we practice,” says Coach Brad Lambert. “We want our guys moving around, we don’t want a lot of walking around out there. And that’s all a part of establishing how we play and the way the want to play in this first game.”
Lambert says, at this point, his players are ready to start the season, or as ready as they can be.
“The hard part is going through all the unknowns that can happen in a game because a lot of our players haven’t been in a college game,” Lambert says. “So, all of the funny situations that could come up in a game, you have to cover all that. And we don’t have older guys to say, ‘Hey, this is what’s going to happen to you.’ So, we have to show them everything.”
In particular, Lambert’s worried about his special teams—kickoffs, punts, and returns, which are hard to simulate. He spends the first part of Tuesday’s practice with that unit.
One thing the new team does not have to worry about is its fan base. Tickets to the 15,000 seat stadium are entirely sold-out. Tickets are selling for between $185 and $450 on the secondary market site Stubhub. Free safety Desmond Cooper says he’s already being recognized around campus.
“I actually had four professors I know I never had before come up to me and tell me good luck,” Cooper says. “I don’t even know how they know I’m on the team.”
Still, this is a first year program. Athletic director Judy Rose warns fans to temper expectations at first.
“Everybody that we’re playing, everybody else—I don’t care if they’re a much smaller school, a Division III school—they’ve been playing for a long time,” says Rose. “So, realistically, we want to put a competitive product on the field that we feel good about.”
The team will have to get up to speed quickly. The 49ers spend the first two years in the second-tier FCS Division, but in 2015, they enter the Division I Conference USA. Still, Lambert is pleased at how far they have already come.
“I used to lay awake at night and go, ‘Okay, what’s that first team going to look like? Who’s going to be on it?” He says. “We didn’t even get our first commitment until October—like, ‘Nobody’s going to come play for us.’ You know you hit all of those emotions.”
On Saturday, it will be time to hit someone else for a change.