So it begins. You know it’s July when your favorite beat writers ramp up their content and start setting the stage for the upcoming college football season. This week’s focus is on the 49ers’ passing attack and how several new faces fit in with the returning veterans.
Chris Reynolds, a Maxwell award candidate, will command the 49ers’ offense yet again in 2021. The redshirt senior technically has one year of eligibility remaining due to the COVID year, but it’s unclear if this is his last ride. 2021 marks the start of the fourth year with the former walk-on at the helm.
Reynolds will protect the ball, extend plays with his legs and pocket awareness, lead both vocally as well as by example, and attack the short to intermediate sections of the field. The biggest critique of his game has been the ability to launch the deep ball. He has gone deep (20 yards or more) on 18% of his passes during the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
In 2019, the 5-11 signal-caller completed 49% of his deep passes for eight scores and four interceptions, with an NFL passer rating of 100.6 (PFF). The abbreviated 2020 schedule and a torn labrum jaded 2020’s numbers, where Reynolds completed 38% of his deep passes for four touchdowns and one interception, culminating in an NFL passer rating of 113. All of this to say, he isn’t going to throw the deep ball that often, but when does, you’re looking at about a 44% completion rating based on his best season (2019) and his worst season (2020).
Reynolds’ ability to run was the x-factor for the 49ers’ offense in 2019. He ran for 767 yards with 531 of those coming in the last five regular-season games. Whether it was the injury, offensive coordinator change, or a combination of both, the QB run game was almost exclusively Dom Shoffner’s responsibility in 2020 as Reynolds rushed for only 36 yards on the season. Time will tell if James Foster will step into that dual-threat role, but offensive coordinator and play-caller Mark Carney must mix up the run and pass if they utilize a second quarterback.
While we don’t have statistics on Foster’s in-game abilities, he’s shown throughout the spring that can push the ball down the field. I’ve been told that he wants to be the deep ball guy, but mainly he wants to play so he’s focusing on the reads and fitting into the system more than anything. Unseating Reynolds before the season opener is highly unlikely, but you can expect Foster to see action in the second week of the season against Gardner-Webb. We saw two quarterback looks several times in 2020.
I expect Shoffner to be the third-string QB, but that battle with Trexler Ivey and freshman Xavier Williams could be up for grabs all season.
Regardless of who is under center, the offensive line must take a step forward with three returning starters in 2021. In six games, Reynolds was sacked 16 times. For reference, he was sacked 17 times in the 13-game 2019 season. Opposing defenses created chaos with just four rushers.
Victor Tucker, who will be wearing number one this season with the departure of Micaleous Elder, has led the team in receptions and receiving yards since 2018. Tucker averaged nearly 18 yards per catch on his way to 909 yards and 7 touchdowns during the 2019 season. The Miami Gardens native is the most explosive player on the offense and has the ability to score any time he touches the ball.
Opposite Tucker is Cameron Dollar, somewhat of an unsung hero in the 49ers’ offense. Dollar’s best game as a 49er came against UTEP in 2019 with a 157-yard performance in a comeback victory. In 2020 he led the team with three receiving touchdowns while only catching 10 passes. Cam is the best blocking receiver on the roster and you can expect his targets to increase without Elder in the rotation.
42% of Charlotte’s receiving production departed via graduation or the transfer portal this offseason. While Tre Goode didn’t catch a single pass last season, he must step up and become a viable option in the slot. Expect to see a ton of Taylor Thompson in the slot and on the perimeter. Simply put, Thompson is like that. His teammates aren’t shy about letting you know either.
“Taylor is different. That boy is different,” said defensive back Jon Alexander.
Elijah Spencer and Grant DuBose are two young guys to watch, with the latter arriving on campus just last month from Miles College. DuBose flew under the radar in JUCO but has received high praise from his new teammates. At 6-3, he is the tallest receiver on the roster.
Proven depth is a concern with only Dollar and Tucker locks for the starting lineup. Reynolds’ brother, Jack Reynolds, is an interesting addition to the receiver room. He averaged 108 receiving yards per game and scored 9 touchdowns in his final season at Davie High.
Keith Pearson Jr. transferred from Presbyterian after recording 65 catches for 831 yards and five touchdowns in seven games. At 5-10 170lbs, Pearson has the potential to fill Elder’s role in the slot. The Niners need reliable targets in the rotation, and there’s a lot of youthful talent with a big opportunity in their grasp.
It’s no secret that this offense will go as Reynolds does.
“My main goal is competing with myself. How can we get better every single day,” Reynolds said. “My job is to be the leader of these guys. Let’s take it one game at a time and one practice at a time.”
This unit never gelled in 2020, and while their numbers didn’t dip tremendously, the Niners didn’t have that “it” factor that propelled them in 2019. Mark Carney didn’t get a fair shot last season. This is his opportunity as this offense has the pieces with a senior leader running the show.