For Charlotte, new coach, plenty of returning players may be recipe for bowl game

49ers were one game shy of eligibility last year

Returning Charlotte running back Benny LeMay ranked second in Conference USA in rushing last season with 1,243 yards. (Wade Payne / AP Photo)

Last year, Charlotte had its best year since reviving the program in 2015. It wasn’t good enough.

The team finished 5-7, its fourth straight losing season, and Brad Lambert, the only coach the program has had, was let go.

In his place is Will Healy, the 2017 FCS coach of the year, who jumps up a level to FCS after rebuilding Austin Peay. Healy inherited a Peay team that went 0-11 and managed to improve it to 8-4 in just one year.

Things aren’t quite as bleak in Charlotte, but the 49ers hope he can still work some of his magic on the team.

Working in Healy’s favor, the 49ers have several key pieces returning.

On offense, Charlotte returns the two quarterbacks who started games last season in Chris Reynolds and Evan Shirreffs. Reynolds completed almost 65 percent of his passes, throwing for 1,173 yards before he went down to injury and missed the second half of the season.

Also in the mix at quarterback is USF graduate transfer Brett Kean, who spent three years as backup quarterback for the Bulls, throwing for 333 yards and three scores. Healy still hasn’t chosen a starter.

Whoever starts under center will likely be handing it off regularly. Benny LeMay, the second-leading rusher in Conference USA last season and a unanimous preseason first-teamer, returns after rushing for 1,243 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. His backup, Aaron McAllister, also returns. 

The receiving corps took a hit when Rico Arnold suffered a foot injury in the spring. Victor Tucker, who led Charlotte with 54 catches and 712 yards, will be the top target for the quarterback. The team also adds tight end Christian Roberson, a grad transfer from Mississippi State.

The offensive line loses Nate Davis, who became the second NFL Draft pick in school history. Cameron Clark, one of the top tackles in the conference, and center Jaelin Fisher, a Rimington Award nominee, return to solidify the line.

The defense doesn’t have anywhere near as many question marks as the offense. Charlotte returns seven starters, including five of the top six tacklers.

Alex Highsmith is a first-team All-CUSA selection after getting 17.5 tackles for loss last season. Tyriq Harris, who plays on the other side of the line from Highsmith, was fifth on the team in tackles last year.

The linebackers lose Juwan Foggie, third on the team in tackles last season and first with a team-record six interceptions, but Jeff Gemmell returns to build on his 87 tackles, nine tackles for loss and four sacks.

Safety Ben DeLuca led the team with 92 tackles last year and anchors a veteran secondary. Corner Nafees Lyon tied for the team lead with five pass breakups. The team also adds a grad transfer from Tennessee in corner Marquill Osborne.

Charlotte also features the conference’s best kicker in Jonathan Cruz, who was named to CUSA’s first team in the preseason.

Healy would like nothing better than to lead Charlotte to that elusive bowl berth in his first year as head coach. He won’t get much cooperation from the schedule, however.

While the Niners have winnable nonconference home games, against Gardner-Webb and UMass, the road non-cons could be death marches.

Charlotte heads to Appalachian State on Sept. 7, then travels to national champion Clemson two weeks later. App beat Charlotte 45-9 last season. Both games this year could rival that score in lopsidedness.

Still likely reeling from Clemson, Charlotte will host FAU in its conference opener the following week. The Owls, 5-7 last year, aren’t quite a must-win, but the path to a bowl becomes much smoother if Charlotte gets that win under its belt.

Charlotte also faces Marshall, North Texas and FIU, all nine-win teams last year. On the flip side, the Niners get winnable road games at UTEP (1-11), Western Kentucky (3-9) and Old Dominion (4-8). Splitting those six games — three against good teams, three against poor ones — as well as the four nonconference contests puts Charlotte at 5-5.

The two games that could determine if Healy leads the 49ers to a bowl, or at least improves the team from last year’s record, are home contests against Florida Atlantic and 8-6 Middle Tennessee.

Charlotte 49ers

2018 Record: 5-7 (4-4 CUSA)

Coach: Will Healy (13-21 career record)

Points Per Game: 21.7

Points Allowed Per Game: 26.6

Key Returning Players: Sr. DE Alex Highsmith; Sr. RB Ben LeMay; Sr. LB Jeff Gemmell

Key Departed Players: LB Juwan Foggie; OL Nate Davis

Key Additions: Gr. QB Brett Kean; Sr. CB Marquill Osborne

Key Game: Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, Sept. 28