Saturday morning marked the sixth spring practice under coach Will Healy and his new staff. The energy and enthusiasm levels are night and day, and the winning culture is contagious.
This kind of atmosphere and coaching staff leaves the players no choice but to enjoy the madness. The Charlotte 49ers have moved on from the Brad Lambert era, and the youth movement is continuing in the Queen City.
The encouraging words and excitement drown out the blaring music, and the first scrimmage of Spring practice is in the books.
My first impression of the new look 49ers is that it feels like the players want to be here. Whether they’re padded up, hitting in live drills and scrimmages for the first time, or they’re on the sidelines, recovering from injury or awaiting their eligibility ruling.
This isn’t just practice, this is progress.
The defense dominated the scrimmage, forcing multiple turnovers and field goal attempts. With limited time and multiple strings getting reps, two players that stood out on the defensive side of the ball were defensive end Tyriq Harris, and defensive back Quinton Jordan.
Tyriq Harris: With consistent pressure off the edge, Harris and the rest of the front-seven caused major issues for opposing quarterbacks throughout the day. Harris enters his senior season with a team-high 24 straight starts and is coming off a season with career highs in tackles, tackles for loss, and sacks. Expect Harris to continue dominating the edge.
Quinton Jordan: Jordan made the move from cornerback into the nickel this offseason and showed out on day one with multiple pass breakups and tackles. With the size to play in the box and the speed to run with wideouts, Jordan’s versatility was on display early and often.
The injury bug kept some key players from participating in today’s scrimmage, but luckily nothing major.
Rico Arnold is on crutches as he recovers from a right foot injury he sustained in 1-on-1 drills in a previous practice. Arnold’s Spring campaign is over, but he is expected to be healthy heading into the season.
First Team C-USA defensive end Alex Highsmith participated in individual drills but was held out of live activities as he recovers from shoulder surgery. Alex’s only limitations are bench press and hitting drills as he nears full recovery. Even though he can’t participate, his celebrations and coaching knowledge shows you what kind of leader and teammate he is.
Benny LeMay was held out of the scrimmage today although he confirmed he is in full health. Coach Healy and the staff made the decision to get some of the younger guys reps, and Aaron McCallister and Calvin Camp both benefited with strong showings out of the backfield.
Victor Tucker participated in individual drills but was held out of team activities as a precaution. Tucker’s routes are crisp, and his talent is immediately noticeable. Expect a breakout season by the 5-11 sophomore.
“My goal this season is to be the best wide receiver in the conference,” Tucker said after practice. “We want to go undefeated and win the whole thing, that’s the mindset we are bringing to the table.”
OT Jalen Allen, DT Timmy Horne, and WR Cameron Bent missed practice as well with minor injuries. Cameron Clark is slated to miss all of Spring ball with a hip injury. Clark was rated as the highest-graded offensive lineman in C-USA regardless of position by PFF in 2018.
The 49ers defense finished in the top half of C-USA in 2018, but the loss of former defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer cast doubt over the unit’s success in 2019. Today, multiple players voiced their excitement to have new co-defensive coordinators Marcus West and Brandon Cooper on the staff, and their performance backed that up.
Evan Shirreffs deep pass was intended for Justin Jeffrey but redshirt senior Nafees Lyon made a play on the ball, resulting in the first turnover of the day. Lyon’s 2018 campaign started slow, but he made his mark with his seven starts coming in the last eight games while tying for first on the team with five pass breakups.
The quarterback situation left much to be desired during the 2018 season, but with Chris Reynolds nearing 100%, Evan Shirreffs getting more reps with the first team, and the arrival of USF transfer Brett Kean in July, the battle for QB1 is beginning to heat up.
With the top two receivers and the best running back in C-USA on the sidelines, the offensive unit wasn’t at full strength, but they did show some early glimpses of success.
Joe Thompson: The 6-1 redshirt Junior stepped up when his name was called in Saturday’s scrimmage. Thompson reeled in a 20-yard dart from Shirreffs to put the offense on the board during a red-zone drill. Thompson played in all 12 games last season primarily on special teams but has the talent to contribute offensively in 2019. He could be utilized as a gadget player, as he converted from quarterback to wide receiver in the Spring of 2018.
Jonathon Cruz: Cruz made a name for himself in 2018 as a freshman, going 17-22 in FGA and making all 27 of his extra points. With a second team C-USA bid in 2018, expect Cruz to be a sure-fire kicker in 2019. His 56-yard kick to beat FAU was the longest in C-USA, and the second longest in the FBS during the 2018 season and his stellar play continued as he didn’t miss in the first scrimmage of Spring ball.
We got a first look at the new spread-option offense the 49ers will be utilizing this season, starting with shotgun formation and a plethora of zone runs. Coach Will Healy made it clear that he prioritizes running the ball, and with a back like Benny LeMay getting much of the load, the passing opportunities will begin to pour in. The offense is returning only four starters, barring a fifth with the result of the quarterback battle. With Nate Davis headed to the NFL, Cameron Clark and Jaelin Fisher must step up in the trenches.
Charlotte’s spring practices are held Tuesday’s and Thursday’s at 5:30 in the morning, and at 9:00 a.m. on Saturdays with weekly scrimmages held after practice. All practices are open to the public, and the 49ers spring game will be held on April 13th at 4 p.m.