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Way-Too-Early Preview: Charlotte 49ers

The first winning season in program history has the Queen City excited about what’s to come, but Will Healy and Chris Reynolds have this team aimed at greater accomplishments.

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Credit: Scott Clarke - ESPN

The 2019 season was one that 49ers players and fans won’t forget as it was the first winning season and bowl appearance in program history, as well as Will Healy’s first year calling the shots. The 49ers rallied from a 2-5 record and won five straight to close the regular season before falling to Buffalo 31-9 in the Bahamas Bowl. A team whose senior leaders headlined the starting lineup is losing a lot of talent, but with a solid core returning, a stud at QB, and the best recruiting class in school history on the way, things are trending up in the Queen City.

The injury bug bit the 49ers all throughout 2019, but the resulting bright spot is that three seniors are exercising a redshirt year to return in 2020: DE Tyriq Harris, S Ben DeLuca, and CB Nafees Lyon. The defense is losing 4 starters, including AP All-American Alex Highsmith, and leading tackler in 49ers history Jeff Gemmell, but has already landed 10 defensive recruits including South Carolina transfer and Concord native Derek Boykins.

Boykins had offers from Penn State, Michigan, Texas A&M, and even Clemson before committing to South Carolina out of high school. He enrolled early and served a redshirt season under Will Muschamp before entering the transfer portal on October 8th. Boykins visited UNC and NC State before committing to the 49ers, and has filed for an immediate eligibility waiver but must wait for the NCAA to give a final ruling. If eligible, Boykins will fill an immediate gap at linebacker with the departure of Jeff Gemmell.

Running back Tre Harbison entered the transfer portal and committed to the 49ers following two-consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in the MAC at Northern Illinois, and with Benny LeMay having played his last down in green and gold, the combo of Harbison and McAllister have some monstrous shoes to fill.

Offensively, the 49ers are losing their workhorse in LeMay, as well as three of the bodyguards on the offensive line in Jalen Allen, Dominic Taylor, and First-Team All C-USA Cameron Clark. Filling the holes on the offensive line as well as replacing offensive coordinator and play-caller Alex Atkins will be the biggest looming concerns heading to 2020. Despite the 49ers’ working to keep Atkins on staff, Florida State was able to offer more and poach the highly touted assistant to the ACC.

Quarterback Chris Reynolds and the entire receiving corps will return, along with the addition of a healthy Rico Arnold. Reynolds is a dual-threat signal-caller with a plethora of weapons around him, headlined by Victor Tucker and Cameron Dollar. Tucker led the team with five 100-yard performances and two of the biggest touchdown catches in program history last season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 03 Charlotte at Tennessee
Wideout Rico Arnold will make his return after missing the entire 2019 season with a foot injury sustained in Spring ball. Arnold’s best performance came on the road against UAB with 7 catches for 109 yards in 2017.
Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I expect the offense to function similar to last season, but with continued development and chemistry the passing game will take another step forward in Reynolds’ junior season. The emergence of a reliable tight end would add another element to the aerial attack, as grad-transfer Christian Roberson led the 49ers tight ends with only 5 catches for 64 yards in 2019.

Originally, I was concerned about all of the losses to the defense, but the return of Harris, DeLuca, and Lyon have instilled excitement for Marcus West and Brandon Cooper’s unit. Ben DeLuca injured his shoulder in week two against Appalachian State and underwent season-ending surgery, and will now play alongside Jacione Fugate at safety. DeLuca currently ranks third all-time for the 49ers with 265 tackles.

Freshman corner Lance McMillan made some great strides in 2019 and made C-USA’s All-Freshman team while only playing in 8 games. McMillan bought in and put the work in this season and was rewarded by coach Healy and the 49ers staff on Christmas day with a full scholarship.

The 49ers special teams undoubtedly took a step back in 2019, and will desperately need an improvement in the punt protection department as well as Jonathon Cruz returning to his freshman season greatness. Kyle Corbett and Connor Bowler split punting duties through 2019, and I assume the battle will continue through the offseason and into spring ball. The return game will likely look similar as kick returner Aaron McAllister and punt returner Nafees Lyon are both back, but I would love to see the speedy Micaleous Elder get a shot at either position. Elder started his frosh season on fire with a touchdown against Gardner-Webb and a 100-yard performance against in-state rival Appalachian State, but was hampered with injuries throughout the season. I think he will take a massive step forward and carve out a role in the slot as well as in the return game in his second year with the program.

Healy’s first recruiting class is headlined by two JUCO transfers Lyndarious Strange and Trey Creamer. Creamer is transferring from Fort Scott in Kansas, the same junior college that NFL players Lavonte David and Jason Pierre-Paul attended. 7 of the 18 commits are from North Carolina, two of which are from Charlotte.

I believe Chris Reynolds will be the vocal leader of this team, and if the offensive line can patch the necessary holes and provide adequate protection, his numbers could warrant All C-USA honors. Reynolds finished on the honorable mention list in 2019 while breaking the 49ers passing touchdown record with 22 on the season. The 5’11 signal-caller from Mocksville, NC, threw for 2,564 yards as well as 756 yards and 6 touchdowns on the ground. PFF has him ranked as the 35th best quarterback in the nation, the highest-ranked returning QB in C-USA’s East division.

Marshall v Charlotte Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

The 49ers open their second season under Healy in Knoxville against the Tennessee Volunteers. Charlotte fell in a hard-fought game against the Volunteers in 2017, losing 14-3 with Evan Shirreffs at the helm. The non-conference schedule consists of home games against Norfolk State and Georgia State, as well as the penultimate matchup coming in Durham against the Duke Blue Devils.

The 49ers earned respect and rapport during their five-game win streak and solidified themselves with the senior day victory over Marshall. A player told me that Brad Lambert was a good coach and a great man, but Will Healy turned them into savages.

I’m excited about the future of this program, and with an extension on the horizon for Healy, there’s a lot of optimism for the continued growth of this Charlotte 49ers program.