CHARLOTTE — With their all-time leading passer and second all-time leading receiver returning for a final season, the Charlotte 49ers are looking to make their final Conference USA campaign one to remember.
Now in his fourth year leading the team, Charlotte coach Will Healy (14-17 with the 49ers) will look for the 49ers to be more like the 7-6 breakout bowl team of 2019 — the only winning season in school’s 10-year CFP history — and less like last season’s team that dropped its final three games to finish 5-7 and miss returning to the postseason.
Charlotte has struggled to find consistency since it was rebooted back in 2013, standing 39-77 with no bowl wins over the last decade. Next year will offer a new challenge when the 49ers move to the American Athletic Conference, but first they hope to say farewell to the C-USA on a positive note.
In 2018, walk-on quarterback Chris Reynolds and two-star freshman wide receiver Victor Tucker entered the fold as Charlotte reeled from a 1-11 record from the previous year. Four years later, Reynolds and Tucker rank as two of the best players the Niners have ever had, spearheading an offensive attack that will largely be intact from last season with eight starters returning.
Reynolds is set to follow up his best passing season yet — 2,690 yards, 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions — while Tucker’s 2,660 career receiving yards are the most for Charlotte since it joined the FBS level in 2015.
Meanwhile, Miles College transfer Grant DuBose is back for his second year in Charlotte after leading the team in receptions (62), yards (892) and touchdowns (six) in 2021. Wideout Elijah Spencer— the 2021 C-USA Freshman of the Year — will provide Reynolds with a valuable third option in the passing game.
Calvin Camp and former Iowa transfer Shadrick Byrd will once again lead the rushing attack after combining for seven touchdowns and nearly 1,300 yards last year, although they will need some help from an undersized offensive line.
New defensive coordinator Greg Brown and defensive line coach Brian Baker will attempt to turn around a defense that was among the worst in C-USA last season when it allowed 465 yards and 34 points per game a season ago.
Markees Watts, who led the team last season with five sacks, is back as part of a defense that added veteran linebackers Amir Siddiq (Central Michigan) and Wayne Jones (Kansas State) as transfers. With just 2.5 more sacks, Watts will set the program record for the most sacks in school history (20).
Sophomore defensive tackle Jalar Holley will be a key factor as the Niners try to bolster their run defense. The former Miami Hurricanes defender had 14 tackles and a sack last season for Charlotte.
Starting safety Solomon Rogers and cornerback Trey Creamer lead a secondary that is largely intact but also in need of improvement. In 2021, the group ranked second to last in the FBS by allowing 9.66 yards per attempt and 14.98 yards per completion.
Four-year starting kicker Jonathan Cruz moved on to Ole Miss, leaving a hole that will either be filled by freshman Braeden McAlister, redshirt freshman Aidan Laros or Tennessee State transfer Antonio Zita.
Sophomore punter Bailey Rice returns for the Niners. The Australian with years of rugby experience averaged 42.3 yards per punt during the 2021 season and still has three seasons of eligibility left. Geo Howard and Byrd are penciled in as punt returner and kick returner, respectively.
The 49ers’ offense is primed with playmakers at quarterback, wideout and running back, and could be one of the best in the conference. But the defense will need its returning upperclassmen to bounce back in 2022.
Charlotte’s 2021 season-opening win over Duke was the school’s first win over a Power Five opponent, and the Niners will have two chances to add to their total with a home game against Maryland on Sept. 10 and a road trip to South Carolina on Sept. 24.
While those two games might stand out on the schedule, Charlotte’s C-USA slate is where the 49ers will need to succeed to return to a bowl game. The season starts with a winnable road game at Florida Atlantic on Aug. 27, and the second conference matchup is Oct. 1 when UTEP comes to Jerry Richardson Stadium.
The 49ers also host Florida International (Oct. 22), Western Kentucky (Nov. 5) and close the regular season at home against Louisiana Tech (Nov. 19). Charlotte plays on the road at conference contender UAB (Oct. 15), Rice (Oct. 29) and Middle Tennessee State (Nov. 12).