Austin Duke had been waiting a long, long time for this. Even so, the UNC Charlotte receiver, like a lot of people, was still getting used to the idea of where, exactly, he’s going with his Charlotte 49ers football team.
“Just getting my chance at Division I-double ... Division I football ... is a big opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” Duke self-corrected before the season. ”And my only opportunity. It just put a chip on my shoulder.”
Excuse Duke’s stumble in describing which division the 49ers are playing in this season. It’s all new, and it's taken some adjusting for everyone. Division I is called FBS now, anyway, and it’s that highest level of collegiate football that Charlotte rejoined last week in resounding fashion.
"It's another first in a long line of firsts since we've started this program," head coach Brad Lambert said at Conference USA media day in July. "We've been pointing toward this for a couple years now. We've got a couple more first on the way, so it's an exciting time."
The latest first came Friday when the 49ers defeated Georgia State, 23-20, at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta — their first victory in their first FBS game against an FBS opponent.
The last two seasons, since restarting a football program that lain dormant since 1949, Charlotte competed in FCS (formerly Division I-AA). After two years of preparation, two years of players gaining experience and maturity, the 49ers joined Conference USA in the fall proclaim they’re ready to play with the “big boys.”
“I just love the feeling of going to a higher level and playing bigger people,” said running back Kalif Phillips, who rushed for 90 yards against Georgia State. “It will just put more of a challenge on to us and show how we can overcome that.”
There have been, of course, many challenges in the move. Two 5-6 seasons competing as an independent in FCS have unveiled a decided mediocrity thus far. Eleven of this season’s opponents are FBS teams, including three of the last four Conference USA champions (Marshall, Rice and Southern Mississippi). Five opponents had at least six victories last season.
Charlotte will be playing at a level that has bigger, stronger and faster players, however. And for that obstacle, coach Brad Lambert has no solution other than to hope for good health.
“There’s no real way to prepare them for that, other than we knew two years ago that we were making this move,” Lambert said. “That was our challenge as a staff, to make sure we’re old enough to handle that. Our guys are more mature physically, and I think they’ll match up physically. The challenge will be, are we deep enough? On the first-line group, we’ll be fine. But as we move forward, do we have enough depth with guys to handle the season?”
And though it is not a one-for-one swap, Charlotte essentially is replacing UAB in C-USA this season after UAB dropped its program while citing financial concerns. (Charlotte has had an agreement to join Conference USA for two years, and UAB made the decision to drop its program in December 2014 before reinstating in June.)
“I try not to think of it as intimidating,” Duke said. “Just sort of that mindset that I’m supposed to be here, I belong here and I should have been here from the start. So that’s the kind of chip on my shoulder that I have going into it. I’m not putting too much thought into letting it intimidate me. I’m just letting it motivate me in that it’s finally time to show your stuff off.”
Duke flashed his stuff against Georgia State, catching a 63-yard touchdown pass from Matt Johnson that put the 49ers ahead 20-3 at the half. It was the eighth time that Johnson and Duke have connected for a touchdown pass of 60 or more yards.
Charlotte's next first comes Saturday with its first home game as an FBS team. The 49ers play Presbyterian, an FCS school, at noon ET on ASN. (Find your local affiliate.)
Their first conference home game is Sept. 26 against Florida Atlantic. Of course, the players are looking toward the end of the season, in the season’s penultimate game against the SEC opponent on the schedule, Kentucky, on Nov. 21.
“I feel like that’s going to be the game that shows what we can really do,” Phillips said. “If we pull off the win, then we know we are up there with the big teams. And that’s all we want to do is not be the underdogs, and all that. We want to be up there with the real big schools and show them that we can do it.”
Charlotte hopes to prove by then that it belongs in Conference USA. It’s an achievement the team and its fans are embracing wholly, evidenced by 11,469 people attending the team's spring game in May.
"Niner Nation is great to us," said offensive lineman Danny Book. "Great fans. They come out and support us every time. Coming into Year Three, they finally got to know the players a little bit more. So now they have their favorite player and know more what to expect. ... It's awesome."
Above: Video produced by Don Schick
On the cover: On the cover: Austin Duke led Charlotte in receiving last season with 79 catches for 1,373 yards and nine touchdowns. (Photo courtesy Charlotte 49ers Athletics)