The first game is less than a month away and preparation has begun for the Charlotte 49ers’ final season in Conference USA.
It’s been a busy offseason for head coach Will Healy and the Niners, retooling their defensive staff, unveiling stadium renovations and gearing up for the 10th season in program history. Charlotte has added six FBS transfers, five of which joined from Power Five programs.
The 49ers scored their first win over a Power-Five opponent in the 2021 season opener against Duke and will have two more opportunities to replicate that success this season, with bouts against Maryland at Richardson Stadium and against South Carolina in Colombia.
Training camp started at the end of July and all eyes are focused on the opening kickoff in Boca Raton on Aug. 27, where the 49ers will meet Florida Atlantic in an early season conference clash.
Here are five training camp story lines to watch for the 49ers.
NEW DEFENSE, NEW MINDSET
Following a season defined by defensive struggles, Charlotte’s defense has found new energy with the additions of defensive coordinator Greg Brown and defensive line coach Brian Baker.
“It’s been amazing. Personally, I feel free,” safety Solomon Rogers said about the new defensive staff. “We’re playing football. It’s not rocket science. It’s a game that we played at a young age that we just loved to do, and now we’ve got people around us that are allowing us to feel like kids again.”
Healy stated that the group is “getting its swagger back,” and there’s been evidence of that at the start of fall camp with plenty of new and returning playmakers finding their rhythm. Brown has implemented a completely new scheme, consisting of multiple fronts and presnap movements, much to the players’ liking.
As Charlotte shifts into fully padded practices, the rotations will shrink and Healy will have a better idea of who will be making plays as the season begins.
Charlotte is returning nearly all its reps at cornerback from last season. However, that group allowed 9.66 yards per attempt and 14.98 yards per completion, both ranking second to last in the FBS.
“Obviously, that was not a position of strength a year ago,” Healy said about the cornerbacks. “I hope that by the time we get into the second and third weeks of camp, put some pads on and start some physicality, that we’ll be able to see who the guys are.”
Trey Creamer and Valerian Agbaw have worked with the first-team defense through the first week of camp, with Geovante Howard, Lance McMillan, Jordan Anderson and Shedrick Ursery alternating on the second team.
Creamer showed flashes of being a reliable option in the secondary last season but was marred by inconsistency and a lack of a pass rush. The 49ers have multiple options at safety and could potentially convert one to corner if there isn’t separation through August.
It’s worth adding that Charlotte’s defensive backs are guarding a receiving corps consisting of two Biletnikoff Award watch list candidates, Grant DuBose (2022), and Victor Tucker (2020), as well as the 2021 C-USA Freshman of the Year Elijah Spencer.
OFFENSIVE LINE DEPTH
D’Mitri Emmanuel’s departure to Florida State left a glaring hole on the offensive line, one the 49ers must fill by committee. Reinforcements have come in the form of two Power-Five transfers, with tackle Matt Rosso (Rutgers) and guard Michael Statham Jr. (Pittsburgh) entering the fold.
Rosso has worked in the second-team rotation, backing up starting left tackle Jaxon Hughes. Statham Jr. is a monster of a human, standing at 6-foot-7 and 400 pounds, although he hasn’t cracked the first- or second-team rotations to this point. Following the first week of practice, here’s the current group of starters up front: left tackle Jaxon Hughes, left guard Panda Askew, center Ashton Gist, right guard Jon Jacobs, right tackle TJ Moore.
Four of the five are returning starters from 2021, with Jacobs returning to the lineup after missing the entire season due to injury. While the quality of the depth is still in question, Arabee Muslim, Jonny King and Rosso are showing to be strong reserves early fall practices.
HERE’S THE KICKER
With the departure of four-year starter Jonathan Cruz to Ole Miss, Charlotte has big shoes to fill at kicker.
The 49ers added highly touted freshman Braeden McAlister and fifth-year senior Antonio Zita from Tennessee State during the offseason. McAlister and Zita will battle with returning redshirt freshman Aidan Laros.
“Zita is a really nice guy to have because he’s done it. He’s been in those types of games and has a very strong leg. He kicked a 62-yarder to win a game at Tennessee State, and he’s really consistent,” Healy said. “Obviously, Braeden (McAlister) is a guy that we’ve been very excited about signing, I think he has as strong of a leg as I’ve seen. His consistency is what has got to get to a point where we feel like he can be the guy.”
Zita won the first week, but the battle will continue through the fall.
RUNNING IT BACK
There are nine 49ers who elected to return for their super-senior seasons, headlined by Chris Reynolds, Victor Tucker and Markees Watts.
Reynolds, the program’s leading passer, has been automatic through summer and the beginning of fall camp. Returning for a sixth season was something he just couldn’t pass up.
“Back in 2017, I didn’t even know if I was going to be invited to a fall camp. I was a walk-on, and I was just grateful for an opportunity,” Reynolds said. “That guy in 2017 would be punching me right now if I didn’t take this opportunity. I love football. It’s only right to finish what we started here. I’m thankful to be back, but we’ve got work to do.”
On the opposite side of the ball, Watts is just 2.5 sacks away from breaking Alex Highsmith’s program record of 20. For Watts, coming back for another year was a no-brainer.
“I didn’t see it as a choice. It was never an option to leave,” Watts said. “How can I call myself a senior, how can I call myself an older guy, when the first time I face adversity as a leader, I quit and run? There’s no abandoning ship. This is my family; this is my home. I wasn’t leaving Charlotte for nothing.”