Fresh off their first winning season and first postseason appearance in program history, just making it through the conundrum that was the 2020 college football campaign had to seem like a reward in and of itself for this Charlotte program.
The 2-4 record on paper is almost an afterthought considering the team had a total of NINE games cancelled, preparing week in and week out for match-ups that, more often than not, never came to fruition due to COVID-related setbacks. With fall camp officially underway, the self-proclaimed “most accessible team in college football” will rely on several new and returning playmakers to breed sustainable success in 2021.
The leadership factor this team gains from having a guy like Chris Reynolds behind center is unmatched.
After a flashy 2019 season in which he led C-USA in passing efficiency and went for 791 yards on the ground, Reynolds gnashed his teeth through the entire season with a torn labrum and still was able to garner Honorable Mention honors from the league’s coaches in 2020. Even with a highly prominent addition in Texas A&M transfer James Foster pushing him for reps, the job will belong to the redshirt senior as long as he remains healthy.
This 49ers rushing attack has been trying to shoulder the leftover load since Benny LeMay’s graduation after 2019, with none of the available options being able to replicate his level of success. Northern Illinois impact transfer Tre Harbison and Aaron McAllister are both gone, leaving a void to be filled in the backfield via the 2021 recruiting class as well as the transfer portal.
Iowa transfer Shadrick Byrd has shown good burst throughout camp and seems to be the most likely option to start, but the team will rely on a committee as the young group tries to gain experience. 6’0” Georgia native Elijah Turner is an intriguing name as he spurned several P5 offers to attend Charlotte, with Calvin Camp, Chavion Smith, and Chavon McEachern all serving purpose as compact scatbacks.
Three-year starter wide receiver Victor Tucker is an absolute problem for any defender in the conference, and has the potential to be named First Team All-CUSA for the first time in his career.
His veteran counterpart Cam Dollar returns as a reliable YAC option after leading the team in touchdowns in the pandemic-shortened season. Interesting tidbit about Dollar, his SEVEN first half receiving touchdowns in a game his senior year of high school still serves as a national record, so the man has zero issue finding paydirt.
Presbyterian transfer Keith “Sweet Feet” Pearson could open eyes in the slot as a former FCS All-American and Walter Payton Award finalist. Tight end Taylor Thompson also serves a reliable role after having a breakout debut campaign as the team’s third-leading receiver in 2020.
The offensive line could be the group with the most questions to answer after surrendering 16 sacks in just 6 appearances last year, including dropping from 1st to 8th in the league in terms of average rushing yards per game. A pair of SEC transfers in TJ Moore and Chibueze Nwanna bring their massive frames to the tackle position as two-time Third Team All-Conference USA D’Mitri Emmanuel shifts inside to guard. Ashton Gist and Penn State transfer Hunter Kelly return to maintain their place on the interior, but this group is largely unproven and lacks true depth.
Without question, this is a defensive group that will want to chip away at the 420 yards per game and 32.5 points per game total surrendered in 2020, and it all starts up front with finding a way to create a formidable pass rush. Five sacks as a team through six games played won’t cut it, and despite key losses to the transfer portal and NFL Draft, Charlotte can still find a way to produce.
Markees Watts returns as the most notable name on the defensive front, joining elite company with Alex Highsmith and Larry Ogunjobi as the only 49ers with double-digit career sack totals. Notre Dame transfer Kofi Wardlow could wind up manning the opposite end-rush spot, but will need to progress more as the season gets closer to truly be a force.
Iowa State transfer Joshua Bailey brings Big 12 pedigree to the interior front beside a 6’5’, 275-pound brick house in redshirt junior Bryan Wallace. Wallace is a high energy, play-to-the-whistle type defensive tackle that could take a noticeable step forward in 2021.
Leading returning tacklers Tyler Murray and Luke Martin both return and spearhead an underrated group at linebacker that can crash lanes to the football. Murray’s 2020 average of 8.17 tackles per game was the highest total by a Charlotte defender since Ben DeLuca back in 2017. South Carolina transfer Derek Boykins is a local product that should find solid play in the rotation after seeing hardly any reps in his short stint in Columbia.
Shoring up the secondary will be no easy feat, losing the program leader in career tackles DeLuca and reliable corner Nafees Lyon. Antone Williams returns to serve as a nickel/corner hybrid, with a who’s who of transfers joining him to form a unit that could really turn heads if they can adapt quickly to the system. Former Scout.com 4-star East Carolina prospect and U.S. Army All-American Tank Robinson is one to keep an eye on at strong safety.
Kicker Jonathan Cruz returns for his fourth consecutive year handling kicking duties, going 4-7 with a season long of 49 yards in 2020. 24-year-old freshman Bailey Rice is expected to punt after four years of Australian Rules football in his native Melbourne.
Return specialist positions seem to be up for grabs, as the graduated McAllister and Lyon leave their roles to be filled. Victor Tucker, Calvin Camp, and freshman wide receiver Elijah Spencer are all possible names in the hat to field and return kicks.
According to ESPN’s 2021 Football Power Index, this Charlotte program has the lowest strength of schedule in all of college football at the FBS level, with not a single opponent ranked higher than 76th in the overall power ratings. Having finished fourth in the division for three consecutive years, Conference USA’s preseason media poll once again has them finishing in the same position.
Taking on two Power Five opponents for the first time in program history is a daunting task, but the FPI has given the Niners at least a 40% chance of victory in eight of their twelve, prognostically leaving some room for optimism.
The transfer portal talent brought to the Queen City is a huge booster, and in mixing the old with the new this team could develop itself into contending for another bowl bid by season’s end.
Prediction: 6-6 (4-4 C-USA) - Myrtle Beach Bowl vs. Troy