When the Charlotte 49ers take the field against the visiting Duke Blue Devils on Friday night, September 3rd, it will have been 736 days since the last sell-out crowd electrified Jerry Richardson Stadium. The capacity limit for the season opener mirrors the chance of Will Healy’s shirt coming off if Club Lit reopens for business - 100%.
No one took the cancellations and postponements of the rocky 2020 season more personally than Healy. Nine abandoned matchups were just the tip of the iceberg that riddled the 49ers’ season.
Turning the page to 2021 was a big step and the spring game was a breath of fresh air for the entire program, even if it was drenched in rain. The game was played on schedule regardless of the forecast that loomed. While it impacted fan attendance, it seemed like a statement. Last season was out of their hands, but this decision was their own and they stuck with it. A monster showing from a completely revamped defense was the result.
The loss of five defensive starters has left some big shoes to fill, but the transfer portal has been kind, speaking volumes of the recruiting staff with official and unofficial visits resuming recently at the beginning of June.
Tyler Murray, Luke Martin and Markees Watts return and are expected to be the vocal leaders of the defense, but keep your eye on guys like Solomon Rogers and newcomer Jon Alexander to make names for themselves in the secondary this season.
“As a leader I expect the new faces and younger guys to step into bigger roles to help the team become the best we can be,” said Murray, the leading tackler and senior linebacker.
The transfer safety duo of Alexander and Jonathon “Tank” Robinson will help fill the shoes of the program’s leading tackler, Ben DeLuca. Alexander has been very adamant about the secondary’s growth through this offseason.
“I feel like we have one of the best secondaries in this conference,” said Jon Alexander, a grad transfer from Kansas State. “Coming from the Big 12, I’ve seen a lot of good dudes. I would compare this defense that we have to some of the best competition from the Big 12. I like the defense, we’ve got a pretty good chance this season.”
Defensive success starts up front, and this front four must make massive strides in getting to the quarterback in 2021. Injuries plagued Watts for most of the 2020 season, but Healy and staff have been thoroughly impressed through spring practice, coining the 6-0, 218lb defensive end as a “machine”.
Kofi Wardlow, a defensive end transfer from Notre Dame, and Joshua Bailey, a defensive tackle transfer from Iowa State will be crucial additions to the defensive front. With Mikel Horton suffering a torn Achilles, paired with Timmy Horne transferring to Kansas State, the interior defensive line has taken a multitude of hits this offseason and will need two or three newcomers to solidify spots in the rotation.
The 49ers’ defense finished in the bottom half of C-USA, giving up 6.6 yards per play and nearly 420 yards per contest. Opponents scored an average of 32.5 points per game, outgunning a Charlotte offense that never found its rhythm.
The defense forced 1.3 takeaways per game last season in six games but had a dominant outing forcing four turnovers while limiting the offense to just two touchdowns in the spring game. The holes in the 49ers’ secondary were magnified last season due to the lack of a pass rush. Antone Williams’ move to the perimeter will pair him with either Lance McMillian or Shedrick Ursery at cornerback. McMillian has shown flashes, but a clear number one corner is yet to emerge.
With just 50 days until the season begins, this unit has a long way to go to achieve its ultimate goal of winning Conference USA. Summer workouts are in full swing, and with such large groups at each practice, you wouldn’t know that they were voluntary.
The team will report on August 4th, and official practice will begin on August 5th.
Folks, it’s almost that time.