Charlotte football turns over new leaf as Poggi era begins

The 49ers are preparing for their inaugural American Athletic Conference season

Quarterback Jalon Jones, who transferred to Charlotte from Bethune Cookman, impressed at the 49ers’ spring game last month. (Lynne Sladky / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — As the Charlotte 49ers football program prepares for a transition to a tougher conference with a new coach and a renovated roster, the upcoming 2023 football season will mark the beginning of a new era.

The team’s recent Green vs. White spring game showcased the ongoing wave of change for the Niners as coach Biff Poggi gets his squad ready for its season-opener against South Carolina State and the following slate of American Athletic Conference matchups.

“I’m really pleased with the kids. We divided them up, drafted them up, and they played really hard,” Poggi said of the spring game performance. “I loved how we ran the ball. I loved how the defense stiffened up inside the red zone. I loved the physicality. We saw some of our marquee players do some unbelievable things, and we didn’t even have some of our best guys even playing today. I’m really, really happy with that.”

After trailing 15-0, the Green offense responded with 17 unanswered points and an exhibition victory that Poggi deemed a win for the whole roster.

“They’ve worked their tails off,” he said. “We’ve put them through the paces of three hours of very physical practices. In the beginning, they had their tongues hanging out, but now they’re asking for more, so I’m really happy with that.”

The performance also gave a glimpse of where the team is heading at the quarterback position with longtime starter Chris Reynolds’ eligibility now expired: 6-foot-3 dual-threat Jalon Jones.

Nearly five years ago, the Richmond, Virginia, native played at St. Frances Academy under Poggi. Now just a few months after announcing his transfer to Charlotte, the former Jackson State and Bethune-Cookman player presumably has the starting job.

Charlotte is the fourth school that the senior has suited up for — and his fifth stop as a collegiate athlete — after initially spending one semester with the Florida Gators in 2019. Jones completed six of his seven passes for 67 yards in the spring game while redshirt junior James Foster was 7 of 12 for 104 yards.

The scrimmage provided some clarity on where offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Miller wants to go with his offense. Following the spring game, Foster and redshirt freshman Xavier Williams announced they were each joining the transfer portal, leaving Jones and true freshman Carson Black as the only scholarship quarterbacks. With the portal reopened, Charlotte could very well opt to bring in some added depth at the position with Jones now appearing to be the QB1.

Shadrick Byrd was the game’s leading rusher with 107 yards on 5.4 yards per carry. The redshirt sophomore led the 49ers in rushing last season and looks to be the primary ball carrier yet again on a youthful running back core that also includes freshmen Micah Bell, Hahsaun Wilson and Durell Robinson.

Redshirt junior linebacker and Notre Dame transfer Ositadinma Ekwonu led the White team with six tackles, while redshirt senior linebacker Chase Monroe anchored the Green team with eight tackles.

Poggi noted that his team still has a long way to go to achieve the training and offseason goals he has set for both his players and coaching staff, adding that toughening up in the trenches will be paramount to on-field success.

“They have had great gains in the weight room and we’re going to get back into it,” Poggi said. “Then we’ll be doing the player-led practices and the new rules for the NCAA will be involved. We have a lot of work to do. I mean, we’ve only had them for 15 practices. We have so much more install going in and so many interesting things that we’re going to do defensively, offensively and in the kicking game.”

One area that could make or break the team is how the wide receiver corps shapes up after losing six of its eight top receiving yardage leaders from last season. Former top wideout Grant DuBose was a seventh-round draft pick by the Green Bay Packers a few weeks ago, while Elijah Spencer opted to transfer to Minnesota.

Quinton Patten, Jake Clemons, Jack Reynolds, Reggie Givhan III and Jack Hestera will each compete for snaps as the wide receiver depth chart takes shape.

Coming off a 3-9 season in their final season in Conference USA, the Niners will have their work cut out for them as they adjust to stronger opponents while also looking for an identity under Poggi.