Football season is amongst us, and I join many supporters and followers of the Charlotte program in anticipation and enthusiasm for the upcoming year on the gridiron. A new chapter has begun for the Charlotte 49ers, and we are 10 days from witnessing Will Healy and company writing their own history in his inaugural year with the program. The hype is real, the energy levels are off the charts, and a winning culture has set the tone; it’s time to see what this team is capable of.
There are a lot of question marks surrounding the 49ers entering the season. Position battles have been key throughout the spring and into the summer, but it’s time to see the hard work these guys have put in come to fruition. There are some studs returning on both sides of the ball that have created optimism for a great season if the pieces fall together, but the main concern that will determine the level of success is which quarterback will lead the team in hopes of claiming their first postseason bowl bid in program history.
QB Battle: Brett Kean vs. Chris Reynolds
Brett Kean joined the 49ers over the summer following a transfer from the University of South Florida. Kean played sparingly over three years in Tampa, posting 333 passing yards with one touchdown and one interception under Bulls head coach Charlie Strong. Kean is vying for an NCAA waiver that would grant him an extra season of eligibility, but that decision is currently under review.
July 31st was the 49ers first practice, and the first time that the 6’1” senior got to showcase his talent with the team. In less than two months of work, Kean has become the only contender to replace Reynolds as QB1. Chemistry is extremely important in a successful offense, and for a quarterback entering a brand-new system, chemistry with the number one receiver is key. Victor Tucker has the ability to be an all C-USA type of weapon for the 49ers this season, and with the speed to stretch the field the deep ball is right down Brett’s ally.
“I consider myself a pocket passer who can extend plays if necessary,” Kean said following the team’s first scrimmage. “My favorite part of my game is the ability to make plays down field when the pocket breaks down.”
Chris Reynolds spent the first six games of the 2018 season at the helm for Brad Lambert’s unit before suffering a season ending ankle injury against Western Kentucky. Reynolds posted a 139.4 passer rating before being sidelined, along with completing 65% of his passes for nearly 1,200 yards and six touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. Despite the solid numbers, the 49ers started the season 2-3 in their first five games.
Reynolds’ recovery was a success, and the 5’10 signal caller from Mocksville has said to be feeling better than one-hundred percent heading into the 2019 season. Entering his third year at the collegiate level, the game is beginning to slow down, and it’s becoming second nature for him to run through the progressions and read the defense, leading to the increased ability to break the pocket and extend plays with his legs. The ability to scramble while in the spread option creates an entirely new dimension for Will Healy’s offense.
Injuries and precautions have prevented the 49ers’ offense from getting consistent reps with the entire first team, but coach Healy expects everyone to be healthy and prepared for their week one clash with Gardner-Webb. Behind a deep running back core headlined by Benny LeMay and Aaron McAllister, alongside a clear number one wideout in Victor Tucker, whoever is under center will have multiple weapons at their disposal.
I believe the job is Chris Reynolds’ to lose. The biggest knocks on Reynolds’ game are his size and his ability to launch the deep ball. Through spring practice and into training camp, Chris has shown consistent improvement in being able to extend plays and fight for extra yardage, along with putting the ball where it needs to be downfield. The redshirt sophomore isn’t known to be a risk taker, but he won’t shy away if there’s a play to be made.
The 49ers dominated the time of possession battles in all five of their victories last season, and Will Healy hasn’t been shy about being comfortable running the ball 30 plus times a game. With an elite all-conference back like Benny LeMay ready and willing to handle the load, it’s safe to say whoever starts at QB will have a safety blanket in the form of the best tailback in C-USA.
“I don’t intend on it, but I would if I had too,” Coach Healy said referencing potentially running a two-quarterback system. “We want one to step up and be the guy, but I do feel good about our options.”
I believe that both Reynolds and Kean will see a good amount of time against Gardner-Webb, with the in-game experience solidifying who will lead the team into Boone for their week two matchup against Appalachian State.
The 49ers return 12 starters from last season, five on the offensive side of the ball and seven on the defense, but with a completely new coaching staff there’s bound to be a few surprises. Based on the past two scrimmages and practice time, these are the 22 men I believe will get the starting nods in week one.
LT Cameron Clark – Highest rated offensive linemen in C-USA last year according to PFF
LG Jalen Allen - Played in first four games before redshirting the 2018 season
C Jaelin Fisher – Named to the Rimington Trophy watch list, awarded to the nation’s top center
RG D’Mitri Emmanuel – Strong showings in practice and in both scrimmages
RT Dominic Taylor – Played in 10 games last season, starting in the season finale against FAU
TE Ryan Carriere – Good blocker with solid hands in the passing game
WR Victor Tucker – Played great last season before QB play began to falter
WR Cameron Dollar – Played in 11 games as a freshman, good size at 6’2 with crisp routes
WR Micaleous Elder – Speed and quickness from the slot, dangerous after the catch
RB Benny LeMay – Best running back in the conference
QB Chris Reynolds – Protects the ball and keep plays alive with ease
DE Alex Highsmith – Named to the Bednarik Award watch list, awarded to the nation’s top defensive end
DT Timmy Horne – Started all 12 games last year, totaling 28 tackles
DT Tommy Doctor – Started 9 games in 2017 but battled injuries throughout the 2018 season
DE Tyriq Harris – Named 2018 third team all C-USA by Phil Steele, a great leader and team captain
LB Jeff Gemmell – Great tackling and play-making ability, gets downhill to the ball carrier quickly
LB Anthony Butler – Started 10 games last season, finishing with five games with five-plus tackles
DB Henry Segura - 2018 C-USA All-Freshman Team, played in all 12 games without a start
CB Nafees Lyon – Multiple key pass deflections in 2018 along with a career high 10 tackles against Marshall
CB Marquill Osborne – Press corner with the ability to shutdown the opposing team’s top wideout
FS Ben DeLuca – Led the team in tackles last season with 92, awarded 2018 first team C-USA by PFF
SS Marquavis Gibbs – Played in all 12 games last season, recording an interception against Old Dominion
Key reserve: Junior linebacker Will Graham has played well in practice; I expect to see him getting plenty of reps based on the opponent’s personnel. Graham joined the team in 2017 as a walk-on, earned a scholarship and played in 11 games last season.
K Jonathon Cruz – Ice in his veins
P Connor Bowler – Transferred from Temple with immediate eligibility, strong showing during camp
After months of hitting the same colors, the players are chomping at the bit to lineup across from another team. Practice intensity has been sky high, the constant competition in close quarters has tempers boiling over; it’s time for some football.
There’s a completely new mindset in the 49ers’ locker room, and taking the field Thursday night under the lights for the first time in the Will Healy era will be a sight to see in the Queen City.