Hours after Charlotte 49ers quarterback Chris Reynolds underwent season-ending ankle surgery Tuesday, coach Brad Lambert said Evan Shirreffs will start on Saturday at Middle Tennessee State.
It was an obvious choice for Lambert. Shirreffs, a 6-foot-5, 210-pound graduate transfer, was strikingly efficient and productive Saturday after coming on in relief of Reynolds in the third quarter of what would be a 40-14 Conference USA victory against Western Kentucky at Richardson Stadium.
“Evan’s done a good job of acclimating to the team and the players,” Lambert said Tuesday. “He came in and joined the guys and got comfortable in the locker room. He’s done a good job and I expect him to play well (against Middle Tennessee).”
Shirreffs was exceptional against WKU, directing scoring drives on five of six possessions. He finished the game having completed 5-of-7 passes for 118 yards and a touchdown.
Now he’ll get his first career start for the 49ers (3-3, 2-1 C-USA) against the Blue Raiders (3-3, 2-1). It began for him at Miami three years ago; he still has two seasons of eligibility remaining at Charlotte.
Shirreffs arrived at Miami in 2015 as a three-star prospect out of Jefferson (Ga.) High. After redshirting his freshman season, he moved up the depth chart to eventually become the Hurricanes’ backup quarterback. He saw limited action in three games in 2017. By that time, three seasons into his college career and on track to graduate in the spring of 2018 with a degree in business finance, he figured it was time to move on.
“They were changing the offense a little bit down there,” Shirreffs said in August during Charlotte’s preseason camp. “I just needed a new start; I felt a little burned out.”
Shirreffs returned to Jefferson last spring to weigh his options and, he said, to “decompress.” Shirreffs said Miami originally blocked him from transferring to an ACC school or a nonconference opponent in 2018 and ‘19. But he won an appeal with the NCAA, which allowed him to transfer to North Carolina, Duke or Virginia - all of which have MBA programs. And Charlotte isn’t on the Hurricanes’ schedule.
Lambert said his recruiting pitch to Shirreffs was simple.
“Our quarterback situation was wide open,” Lambert said. “That was the pitch. You’re looking for an opportunity? Here’s an opportunity.”
After hearing from 49ers coaches, Shirreffs decided to visit Charlotte’s campus, a short drive up Interstate 85 from Jefferson.
“I liked everything about it,” he said. “Driving up, it only took three hours to get here. The campus is nice, way better than I expected. The facilities are great. I didn’t want to go to the middle of nowhere from Miami, and Charlotte is still the South and is a huge banking center. UNCC having an MBA program where I could use my major in finance, that’s the one thing that also really attracted me.”
Shirreffs wasn’t deterred by the 49ers’ 1-11 season in 2017, nor having to compete with two other capable quarterbacks for the starting job.
“I just wanted to have a chance to help turn the culture around,” Shirreffs said. “ I also saw a lot of talent here. I was surprised and glad. They didn’t promise me the job when I committed here. I just want the chance to compete every single day.”
Shirreffs was thrown into a 49ers quarterback competition that included 2017 starter Hasaan Klugh and Reynolds, a redshirt freshman who looked impressive in spring practice. But Shirreffs hurt his hamstring in preseason camp, dousing his chances at the starting job, which eventually went to Reynolds. After playing briefly in the 49ers’ opener against Fordham, Shirreffs fell further behind when he suffered an abdominal injury that occurred while compensating in his throwing motion for the hamstring injury.
Shirreffs missed the next four games. But he was back in uniform and, although listed as Charlotte’s third-string quarterback, ready to go against WKU if anything were to happen to Reynolds. In the third quarter, with the 49ers leading 9-7, Reynolds left the game with an ankle injury.
Lambert went straight to Shirreffs, not feeling comfortable with Klugh, who had fumbled in his only play in the first half.
On his first play, Shirreffs picked up a WKU blitz and threw to tailback Benny LeMay in the right flat for a 31-yard gain. Two plays later, he found Aaron McAllister for 25 more yards. Two plays later, Shirreffs scored on a 1-yard sneak.
It was the beginning of a trend.
As the 49ers dismantled the Hilltoppers, Shirreffs led the 49ers to four touchdowns and into field-goal range for Jonathan Cruz.
Shirreffs didn’t do it all with his arm, either. On one drive, he handed the ball to LeMay seven consecutive times, the final one a 9-yard scoring run. Shirreffs’ touchdown throw was a 28-yarder to Rico Arnold.
“That’s just your job to be ready at any time,” Shirreffs said after the game. “I was just staying loose on the sidelines waiting for my shot. When I went out there, I just tried to bring a little juice and all of the guys embraced me, which was great. I feel like we didn’t skip a beat at all. It was a great second-half effort all around.”
Shirreffs is better suited than either Reynolds or Klugh for the pro-style offense that first-year coordinator Shane Montgomery has installed. He’s taller and has a stronger arm than the 5-foot-11 Reynolds and, although not as mobile as Klugh, more accurate with his throws.
“We got used to (all three quarterbacks) over the summer, so there’s really not going to be much difference,” said 49ers redshirt freshman Victor Tucker, who leads the team 36 catches for 466 yards and two touchdowns. “Evan is obviously a taller guy, so he can see the field a little better and his release point is higher when he throws. That makes it easier to locate the ball when it’s in the air.”
“Evan fits in well,” Montgomery said in August. “He has a bigger body and he’s been in a Power 5 program, where even though he didn’t play a lot, he went against some really good players in practice. He’s got an above-average arm and he’ll get better as he gets used to the offense. He’s actually very mobile, which you don’t see in many big quarterbacks.”
Said Shirreffs: “I like the offense; it’s a big reason why I’m here. I don’t know if I’d say it’s a true pro-style, but it’s more pro-style than most offenses in this day and age. So I’m more of a pocket passer, but I can run a little bit. I’m not going to go for 70 (yards), though.
Shirreffs paused and smiled.
“Well, I’m not going to say that. We’ll see.”
David Scott: @davidscott14