Charlotte hopes for stability after COVID chaos of 2020

The pandemic impacted the 49ers’ schedule more than any other college football team

Charlotte coach Will Healy celebrates a turnover with his players during the first half against Duke in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Durham, N.C. (Jaylynn Nash/Pool Photo via AP)

The Charlotte 49ers released their 2020 schedule in January of last year, a month after the first bowl appearance in school history.

The team would end up playing just three games on the dates and against the opponents listed on that schedule: Oct. 3 at FAU, Oct. 10 at North Texas and Oct. 24 against UTEP. The 49ers went 2-1 in those three games.

The rest of the season, before and after that October stretch, was a muddle of cancellations, postponements and last-minute rescheduling as COVID-19 wreaked havoc with the 49ers perhaps more than any other team in the nation.

Charlotte went 21 days without playing following its opener and topped that with a 36-day gap before its season finale. The team only managed to play six games, posting a 2-4 record and seemingly losing any momentum the program generated with its 2019 trip to the Bahamas Bowl.

Third-year coach Will Healy will look to get the team back on track with a presumably more stable schedule in 2021.

Quarterback: Chris Reynolds returns for his fourth year as starter. He’s set a slew of single-game and season records at Charlotte, and he is second on the school’s career lists for passing yards and touchdowns. He’ll have to hold off Texas A&M transfer James Foster to keep the starting job, however.

Running back: The 49ers need to replace the top two rushers from last year in Tre Harbison and Aaron McAllister. Iowa transfer Shadrick Byrd and senior Calvin Camp, who has been primarily a special teamer, are the top two choices to carry the load.

Wide receiver: The team’s top four receiving targets from last season return, led by second-team All-conference receiver Victor Tucker. He’s been the team’s leading receiver each of the last three seasons. He’s joined by returnees Micaleous Elder, Cameron Dollar and tight end Taylor Thompson, all of whom topped 10 catches in last year’s shortened season.

Offensive line: The weakest unit on the offense last season, the 49ers’ line struggled with pass protection last year. With a much less experienced group of running backs, there will be more pressure on the line to perform both in the run game and in pass protection. The 49ers return three starters and added tackle TJ Moore, who transferred from Florida.

Defensive line: The Charlotte defense struggled last year, and Healy worked the transfer portal hard to try to fix it in a hurry. Nowhere is that more evident than on the line. Notre Dame’s Kofi Wardlow will help out on the edge, while Iowa State’s Joshua Bailey will help shore up the inside. Sack leader Markees Watts returns at the other end, but he only had two last year. Mikel Horton and Siah Sa’o, a grad transfer from Vanderbilt last year, add depth on the inside.

Linebacker: Tyler Murray was the team’s top tackler last season, and the former Troy transfer returns to lead things in the middle. He’s joined by another Troy transfer, Justin Whisenhunt. Luke Martin and Jaylon Sharpe fill out the unit.

Secondary: Stop us if you’ve heard this before — this defensive unit will depend on a transfer to help improve in 2021. Kansas State’s Jonathan Alexander will play one safety. Antone Williams, who transferred from Duke last year, and Davondre Robinson will also play safety. Corner will be manned by Lance McMillan and Shedrick Ursery.

Special teams: The 49ers return kicker Jonathan Cruz but must break in a new punter. Calvin Camp was their top return man last year, but his increased responsibilities at running back may force the team to try someone new back there.

Key players to watch: Foster could be the top player to watch on offense. The quarterback job is Reynolds’ to lose, but Foster — a former four-star recruit at one of the top programs in the SEC — could take things to a different level at Charlotte if he lives up to his potential.

On defense, Wardlow could be a key. He played just three games in four seasons in South Bend, but if he can help pressure the quarterback, it would unlock an area that Charlotte struggled to find last year. The 49ers had just five sacks in six games last year after averaging three a game the year before.

Key game: A win over Duke in the opener would be the first over a Power Five opponent in program history. It would also set the 49ers up for a 2-0 start to the season for the first time since 2015. In C-USA, the opener against Middle Tennessee could be an important game. It’s also Charlotte’s only home game in a month.

X-factor: After last season’s COVID chaos and with all the new faces on the roster, the X-factor for this year might be stability and chemistry. If the team can jell quickly, it could build on early success and have a surprising bounce-back year.