By: Reno Del Toro | May 16, 2019
At rank 121, we have the Charlotte 49ers.
Just like almost every other team on this list, the 49ers have a new head coach. Charlotte’s first FBS-level coaching change was memorable. The 49ers dumped Brad Lambert on November 18, the day after their seventh loss of the season. They would finish with nearly as many wins in 2018 (five) as in their first three FBS seasons combined (seven).
The Niners did not improve one bit over the course and that made the firing occur. Will Healy has brought in to help the team improve and actually develop players. The 34-year-old Healy won the 2017 Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year. Healy is coming into a job where one side of the team is full of seniors and that is the defense.
The offense is a work in progress, to put it diplomatically. The 49ers will start as many as nine seniors on defense, and by the time the offense finds some traction, the defense might have to be rebuilt. Still, the 49ers had begun to show a hint of promise before Lambert left, and Healy might — might — be able to build on that.
Now here comes the fun part about a football which is bowl season. Charlotte has the team to get the job done into December and with an easy schedule, the Niners could be in a nice situation midway through the season.
Benny LeMay is been the workhorse for this team. In 2017, he rushed for 158 yards in a four-point loss to NC A&T, then rushed for 178 yards in a one-point loss to FIU. He finished that year averaging 5.3 yards per carry for an offense that had little else to offer, then he averaged 5.4 in 2018 with the same “LeMay in a losing effort” performances — 129 yards in an eight-point loss to eventual C-USA East champ MTSU, 159 and four scores in a seven-point loss to FIU.
He has had some injuries along the way, but if LeMay can remain healthy, he could finish above 3,000 yards rushing in his career. But just like every great running back, there are also some cons as he hasn’t yet played on an offense that ranked higher than 122nd in Offense. Just imagine what he could do with help.
LeMay’s returning backups averaged just 3.7 yards per carry, and the line only returns two starters. (Redshirt freshman and former star recruit Terrick Smalls Jr. will have a chance to take on a decent load if he’s ready.)
At the wide receiver positions, Victor Tucker and Rico Arnold combined for 1,014 yards, 13.3 yards per catch, and 8.2 yards per target. Whenever anything exciting happened in the Charlotte passing game last year, these sophomores were probably the reasons. Plus, Healy just added seven to the receiving corps (five WRs, two TEs) in his first class, including high-three-star freshman Noah Henderson. You probably don’t do that if you’re running the ball non-stop.
Finally, the quarterback position. The Niners have two quarterbacks that can not run to save their lives, but they both have great arms to light up the scoreboard. Chris Reynolds and Evan Shirreffs averaged about one non-sack carry for every seven pass attempts (not a high ratio), and Reynolds, the far more successful passer of the two, averaged only about 3.3 yards per carry with a 27 percent rushing success rate.
As a freshman, Reynolds completed 65 percent of his passes, with a 139.2 passer rating in six games. Shirreffs, a Miami transfer, completed 52 percent with a 101.5 rating.
Reynolds predictably struggled against a good Appalachian State, but Charlotte averaged 31 points per game against Fordham, ODU, and UMass, and in those games, Reynolds went a combined 61-for-88 (69 percent) for 752 yards, six touchdowns, and no interceptions.
In those games, Tucker caught 22 passes for 336 yards — that both Reynolds and Tucker are still just sophomores shows there’s a pretty high ceiling. Now all the team needs to do is to focus on where they want to shift their focus too, running the football or passing it. Either way, they should have a great team lined up for them and their defense just adds another part to the puzzle.
Charlotte had five primary havoc producers (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbls), and in end Alex Highsmith, linebacker Jeff Gemmell, safety Ben DeLuca, and corner Nafees Lyon, four return. Only linebacker Juwan Foggie departs. Almost all of the primary returnees are seniors, so it wouldn’t be hard to fill in some pieces, but they need to give guys experience before they start next season.
While the run defense didn’t allow much of anything, the pass defense certainly allowed big plays. The 49ers were 100th in passing marginal explosiveness and 101st on passing downs, when the pass rush failed to get home and opponents had the option of completion short or long passes. They give up a lot of yards through the air last season and will make a huge adjustment to that because Charlotte allowed a 66-completion rate which is one of the worst in the NCAA.
The secondary gets a refresh, and that might not be bad. DeLuca and Lyon return, but the other two starters don’t. But corners Quinton Jordan and Robert Cheatem are both likely to return; they missed 2018 after combining for 67 tackles and eight breakups the previous year. Plus, the 49ers could get a boost from Tennessee transfer and former blue-chipper Marquill Osborne.
The defense is senior-heavy, as is the run game, but the passing offense is crazy-young and could be exciting sooner than later. There’s upside, but a lot of it has a bad expiration date.
On the offensive side of the ball, LeMay will be carrying the ball for the most part but, Reynolds, Tucker, and Arnold in the passing game, and a veteran-heavy defense improving enough to eke out a bowl bid. This team is projected to win about four games, but if they pull off some upsets then that five-win season for a year ago can turn into six and a bowl bid.
The Niners will have to have a great season this year before the downfall that will begin in 2020 and further on.
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