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Charlotte 49ers: Pre-season Defensive Outlook

Get familiar with the unit that will make or break the 49ers’ conference championship hopes.

Never thought I would say that going to practice was the best part of my day.
Photo Credit: Keira Kinney - KK Designs

Will Healy brought a family culture to the Queen City, and what is more fun than enjoying playing the game that you love?

Healy carried on the dunk can tradition from Austin Peay in his first year as the 49ers’ head coach, and man, have there been some Sports Center Top 10 worthy slams in practice and on the sideline following a turnover. My personal favorite was Henry Segura’s tomahawk slam after a 49-yard pick six against UMass. It blew the game open, and was just flat out ruthless.


Although the injury bug bit in 2019, the return of senior leaders Tyriq Harris and Ben DeLuca ended up being the icing on the cake to the second-best recruiting class in C-USA. DeLuca is just 41 tackles from breaking Jeff Gemmell’s program tackle record of 306. The senior from Orlando recorded 102 tackles in 2017 and 91 in 2018 before suffering a shoulder injury against Appalachian State in the second game of last season.

Replacing the leadership of former stars Alex Highsmith and Jeff Gemmell will be a tall task, but if anyone is built for it in this locker room, it’s DeLuca and Harris.

The new logo is growing on me a lot. Excited to see the gold chrome when the time comes.
Credit: Kiera Kinney - KK Designs

Harris decided to return for one final year following season-ending back surgery in 2019. It was no easy decision, but one that Tyriq, the entire coaching staff, and fan base are excited about.

“I’ve been so blessed to have another year here. It honestly brings tears to my eyes to come back out here and do what I love,” said Harris following the first day of preseason camp.

This clip is one I took in the spring of 2019, and is just a glimpse of what Mr. 49er brings to the defensive line.

This is undoubtedly a good sign for a defense that gave up 32.2 points and 384.6 yards per game in 2019.

The 49ers posted the second-best statistical pass defense in C-USA for the 2019 season, giving up 193.7 yards per game through the air. Nafees Lyon is a sure-fire starter at corner, with Jonnie Pitman and Lance McMillan competing for the number two spot. Pitman started the first 11 games at nickel in the 2019 season and recorded his best performance in the dramatic comeback victory over North Texas. McMillan was awarded a scholarship on Christmas Day by Santa Healy and will look to build on his C-USA All-Freshman team season. Depth at the cornerback position is very questionable.

Jacione Fugate stepped in for Ben DeLuca following his injury and started 10 of the 13 games at safety. He is the teams highest returning tackler with 69 in his junior season. I believe that the safety duo of DeLuca and Fugate will provide hard-hitting run support, but am curious to see how the secondary will hold up overall. I will update this as we get more 11 on 11 runs in practice.

Linebacker Henry Segura scored the only defensive touchdown for Charlotte while starting every game in 2019. Segura has experience in the nickel highlighting his ability to defend the pass as well as being a reliable tackler. Penn State transfer Brelin Faison-Walden showed promise with some hustle plays in 2019, but has the chance to step into a full-time role at LB with his speed and explosiveness in the 4-2-5 defensive scheme.

The eligibility ruling for South Carolina transfer Derek Boykins is still up in the air. He told me at this point he doesn’t believe he will be eligible, but there is yet to be a final answer from the NCAA.

The switch to the 4-2-5 scheme drove sack numbers through the roof in 2019 as the 49ers defense racked up 37 total sacks, nearly doubling the 2018 total of 19. On that same token, the run defense went from top-3 in C-USA to bottom-3 as they gave up nearly 85 more yards per game on the ground. Charlotte’s front four hit their stride late in the year, but were absolutely gashed by Jaret Patterson and the Buffalo Bulls in the final game of the season.

Charlotte v Tennessee
Markees Watts has 65 tackles, 13 TFL’s, 9.5 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles in his career with the 49ers.
Photo by Donald Page/Getty Images

Replacing a third-round NFL talent and AP All-American is something that this team must do by committee, but with some new additions and a solid group of familiar faces, this unit has their work cut out for them in 2020.

Defensive end Markees Watts posted a Bahamas Bowl record of 9 unassisted tackles in his last time suiting up for the 49ers. Watts played opposite of current Pittsburgh Steeler Alex Highsmith in 2019 and racked up 9.5 sacks in his sophomore season. The big bodies of Bryan Wallace and Timmy Horne will look to clog the interior rushing lanes to secure the biggest blemish for the 49ers in 2019 - run defense. Vanderbilt transfer Siah S’ao is a 6-2, 295lb defensive lineman who will see substantial playtime.

Newcomer to watch: Tyler Murray

Murray has some monstrous shoes to fill wearing #5, but the transfer from Troy and former 3rd Team All Sun-Belt has impressed the coaching staff immediately. Murray sat out the 2019 season after starting 12 of the 13 games for the Trojans in 2018. Expect to see the 6-2, 215lb linebacker in the starting rotation as both a linebacker and a walk-up defensive end.

Murray stepped into the “spear” position - Troy’s version of a hybrid linebacker/defensive back, which will translate well to the rover position in the 49ers 4-2-5 defense.
Credit: Kiera Kinney - KK Designs

Injury Report:

Prince Bemah suffered a torn ACL during the 2019 season and is now battling a non-contact knee injury from OTAs. The biggest relief for Bemah is that it is the opposite knee and that the recovery time is only six weeks compared to the entire season. Expect Bemah to contribute at the linebacker position when he is cleared.

If the defense can find their footing early in the season, this team has the talent to compete for a conference title. The five game win streak to secure bowl eligibility in 2019 was ignited by the defense’s success late in the season, and they will need more of that to contain some of the high octane offenses on their schedule early in the season.

Sam Howell and the potent Tar Heels aerial attack will test this unit immediately if the September 19th matchup in Chapel Hill stays on schedule.