With training camp underway and the season less than a month out, here’s our look at the Charlotte 49ers’ running game for 2021. Part two of this series focuses on the questions surrounding the offensive line and new faces in the backfield.
Heading into training camp, there are a lot of unknowns surrounding this group and that starts with the lack of experience. Out of the 10 running backs on the roster, only four have more than 10 career carries. The 49ers return 30 total carries from true running backs during the 2020 season. Chavon McEachern (11) and Calvin Camp (19), with the latter being the most experienced back in the room. Camp broke his foot in the last game of the season against Western Kentucky, but has made a full recovery and is 100% headed to training camp.
Camp is a converted wide receiver and will be effective in the screen game and catching out of the backfield. At 5-8 178lbs, Camp is elusive but can be utilized between the tackles as well. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry in 2020 for 86 yards and a touchdown.
Shadrick Byrd, an Iowa transfer and former three-star prospect is expected to be the starting back to open the season. He had a strong showing in the spring game and has been working with the first and second-team units all summer. Byrd played just one game on special teams at Iowa after redshirting the 2019 season. The 5-10, 210-pound back will see the majority of his touches between the tackles.
“We’ve got someone like Calvin Camp. Calvin and I were both walk-ons and got our scholarships on the same day. We have a special relationship doing that together. He’s going to be the leader of these guys, he’s been here the longest and learned the most,” senior quarterback Chris Reynolds said. “Shadrick Byrd from Iowa, he’s a really really raw talent. Great person, I’m excited to work with him. We have a really stout running back room. A bunch of young guys that are hungry and are willing to learn. It’s good having guys like Shadrick and Calvin to lead them.”
Young, unproven talent is right. Elijah Turner had a strong showing in the spring game with a touchdown catch after missing the entire 2020 season with an ankle injury. The redshirt freshman has received high praise from his teammates and has a chance to crack the rotation in 2021. McEachern answered the bell when called on last season, but only saw action in three games, scoring in the win over North Texas. UNC Pembroke transfer McKinley Nelson and true freshman Chavion Smith round out those mentioned by coach Will Healy.
Charlotte’s running back room showed depth throughout the spring, but no true every-down back emerged. Running back by committee seems to be the formula, and without much experience, the position poses a huge question mark for the 49ers’ offense.
The strength of this unit is a lot of guys with talent and a high work ethic. The biggest weakness is little to no game experience besides Camp. Regardless of who is seeing the brunt of the carries, the success of the offensive line will make or break for this unit.
This group saw multiple coaching changes this offseason with Lee Grimes departing for Kansas and then LSU, Herb Hand making a brief pitstop before taking his talents to UCF (I wanted to say South Beach), and finally, Pete Rossomando anchoring the job after stops at Vanderbilt and Rutgers over the last two years.
“Coach Rossomando is a great coach, he’s very personable. He knows how to coach different styles for different players. It’s not cookie-cutter at this level and the new techniques he’s teaching will be beneficial,” Hunter Kelly said. “This offseason I’ve focused on my second level blocking from the center position. I can play any position on the interior line but center is the most natural. I’ve worked on my footwork and technique, watching NFL guys like Jason Kelce and Ryan Jensen.”
Rossomando’s group returns three starters from 2020, LG D’Mitri Emmanuel, C Kelly and RG Ashton Gist, with the latter not allowing a single sack nor penalty in 2020. Emmanuel shifted from tackle to guard this offseason, leaving the left tackle position up for grabs. Starting RT Jon Jacobs tore his ACL in the spring and will miss the 2021 season, opening the door for Power 5 transfers TJ Moore (Florida) and Chibueze Nwanna (Arkansas). Moore spent four seasons in the SEC and appeared in all 13 games of the 2019 season as a reserve lineman.
Key reserves and potential starters Dejan Rasuo and Panda Askew both saw action in five games last season, with the latter becoming a regular in the rotation featuring one start. Jaxon Hughes shifted from defensive line to offense and played in three games last season. The 49ers utilized four starting lineups in the six-game 2020 season, and right tackle is still a question mark as the highest-rated recruit in program history, Ty’Keist Crawford, transferred to Arkansas.
Statistically, Charlotte’s offensive line was among the worst in the nation, ranking in the bottom 30 in three categories - Line Yards, Opportunity Rate and Sack Rate (Football Outsiders). One bright spot was the 49ers finished top-10 in the nation in Power Success Rate, meaning the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, needing two yards or less that results in a first down or touchdown.
Ultimately, the running game has more questions than answers. With a mix of returning starters, developing youth and Power 5 transfers, putting pads on August 11th will provide some clarity.