At Conference USA Media Days, new Charlotte coach Will Healy made a statement that now sounds ominous.
“The way your wideouts play,” said Healy, just the second coach Charlotte’s program has had, “is indicative of the type of offense, the type of success you’ll have.”
Less than two weeks later, sophomore Rico Arnold, who was Charlotte’s second-leading returning receiver, underwent surgery on the ankle he injured during spring practice. He’ll miss the entire season.
The bad news has cast a pall on the upbeat atmosphere Healy has tried to instill in Charlotte.
“We’ve got to create a brand within itself,” Healy said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re relevant within our city, that we’re one of the biggest shows in town in Charlotte. We’ve got to fill that stadium and create demand to build on.”
Healy, who, at age 34 was the second-youngest head coach in Division 1 football when he was hired in December, has been busy building that brand and generating excitement.
He raved about the team’s energy level at spring practices, which were held at 5:30 a.m. due to class scheduling conflicts. “We had the most energetic, enthusiastic, passionate practices, even at 5:30 in the morning,” he said.
Defensive players are now encouraged to dunk the football in a trash can held aloft by teammates when they reach the sideline.
“He wants us to have fun and play with energy,” edge rusher Alex Highsmith said.
Highsmith is one of seven returning starters on defense, including five of the 49ers top six tacklers from last year.
Charlotte’s D was ninth-best in the country against the run last season and in the top 25 in total yardage allowed per game.
“We inherited a defense that had some swag about themselves,” Healy said.
Highsmith (18.5 TFL, 3 sacks) was named to the first-team preseason All-CUSA team. He and Tyriq Harris (4.5 TFL) return to the line. Jeff Gemmell (87 tackles, 9 TFL) and Anthony Butler (53 tackles, 4 TFL) return at linebacker, joined by Penn State transfer Brelin Faison-Walden, and the secondary returns safety Ben DeLuca (91 tackles, 4 pass breakups) and corner Nafees Lyon (5 pass breakups).
The secondary also returns Robert Cheatem, who missed all of last season with an injury after recording 31 tackles and three breakups in 2017. Tennessee transfer Marquill Osborne will also be in the mix, assuming he doesn’t have to sit a year.
“I don’t think we have questions in the secondary,” Healy said. “We have great depth. The question is where does everybody fit in.”
On offense, Healy’s specialty, there’s more work to be done.
Last season’s starter, Chris Reynolds, returns after an ankle injury wiped out six games. He completed nearly 65 percent of his passes for 1,173 yards and six touchdowns. Evan Shirreffs (52 percent, 631 yards, two touchdowns), who replaced him, is also back. They’re joined by USF transfer Brett Kean, although Healy hasn’t chosen a starter yet.
“We have no clarity, but we’ve got good options,” he said.
Without Arnold, the only experienced target returning at receiver is Victor Tucker, who had 54 catches for 712 yards last year.
Healy’s teams at Austin Peay, where he improved the team from a 0-11 record in his first season to 8-4 in his second, were known for their rushing attack. The Governors were 16th in FCS in rushing last season at 237.5 yards per game, and that was down from 258.8 the year before.
So it should come as no surprise that Healy plans to rely on the run this season. He has just the person to help him achieve that in returning running back Ben LeMay, who had 1,243 yards — second in the league — and 11 touchdowns last season. LeMay was named to first-team preseason All-CUSA.
The line returns two starters — left tackle Cam Clark and left guard Jalen Allen.
“I feel great about the offensive line,” Healy said. “We’re going to have some competition at the other positions. … We’re going to need them, because we’re going to run the football.”
On special teams, Charlotte returns sophomore kicker Jonathan Cruz, who was chosen first-team preseason All-CUSA. He made eight of 10 kicks from 40 yards or longer last year. The team also returns punter Kyle Corbett (41-yard average) and kick returner Aaron McAllister (17.9 average).
The 49ers have never had a winning record. Last year’s 5-7 mark was as close as they’ve come. While Healy is focused on turning around the attitude in Charlotte, it may take another year for the results to show in the standings. Perhaps thinking of his first year at Austin Peay, he’s OK with waiting.
“The potential ceiling for our program is as high as I’ve ever seen,” he said. “The culture and identity are going to change. We just have to make sure what we do in year one is something you can sustain and make last.”