New Charlotte 49ers football coach Will Healy talked Xs and Os during his introductory news conference Wednesday at Richardson Stadium.
Healy knows he has an experienced team returning (12 starters). It’s a group that moved into the middle tier of Conference USA by going 5-7 this season, a far cry from the 1-11 effort of 2017.
He’ll have plenty of decisions to make, and he cautioned that nobody’s job is safe.
“Everybody in this program has a clean slate,” Healy said. “If you’re an all-conference player, that’s awesome. Be an all-conference player for our staff. If you were a bench-warmer and you want to get playing time, here’s the perfect time.”
Healy said he will install a spread-option offense and 4-2-5 defense.
The spread option is not too different from the pro-style attack the 49ers used in 2017 under first-year offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery (Healy hasn’t announced any changes to the 49ers staff, which was retained after former coach Brad Lambert was fired).
The spread option operates out of the shotgun and relies on smaller, quicker players in the slot positions, with the quarterback a legitimate running threat. The pro-style offense will typically use a tight end in one of those spots, with the quarterback under center more often.
Healy said he will look for a run-pass balance that’s based on yardage, not number of plays. There will be principles of the West Coast offense incorporated (focusing on short passes into the flat and toward the sideline).
“I’d like to rush for 250 (yards), pass for 200,” he said. “That could mean we throw 20-25 times a game and run 50 (times).
That’s pretty close to what Healy’s Austin Peay team did last season: The Governors led the Ohio Valley Conference and were 17th nationally in rushing, averaging 237.5 yards on 44 attempts and 181 yards passing on 23.5 attempts per game. Two Austin Peay running backs – Kentel Williams and quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall – ranked among the league’s top-10 rushers.
Last season, the 49ers averaged 162.6 yards per game rushing on 43.8 attempts and 180.5 yards passing on 15.2 attempts.
That means Healy will want the 49ers to increase the number of plays they run, although Charlotte’s average time of possession of 34 minutes, 59 seconds per game led Conference USA.
Will Healy have the right type of players to accomplish that?
Whether Chris Reynolds, last season’s starter before injuring his ankle in the 49ers’ sixth game, or Evan Shirreffs best fits that style will be perhaps the biggest story of Charlotte’s spring practice. Reynolds is the more mobile of the two; Shirreffs has a stronger arm.
Running back Benny LeMay, a second-team All-Conference USA selection, rushed for 1,243 yards last season, averaging 5.4 yards per carry. Aaron McAllister was a reliable backup, rushing for 395 yards (4.3 per carry). Calvin Camp and Ishod Finger (until he was injured) also saw playing time.
Healy will be looking for more running-back depth on the recruiting trail.
“We’re going to recruit as many running backs as we can, because we want to run the ball more than we throw the football,” he said.
Receivers Victor Tucker and Rico Arnold, who both made C-USA’s all-freshmen team this season, can line up wide or in the slot.
“We will find ways to get the ball in playmakers’ hands,” Healy said.
Defensively, the 49ers played a 4-3 formation last season and had one of the nation’s top rush defenses (averaging 105.7 yards per game). That system will go out the window with a new emphasis in Healy’s 4-2-5 scheme.
“I believe in rushing the passer, that’s the biggest deal,” Healy said. “If you get pressure with the front four, you don’t have to blitz.”
Healy said the 4-2-5 puts a premium on defensive end play, adding he’s been around 10 All-American and all-conference defensive ends during his playing and coaching career.
The 49ers return two defensive ends – Alex Highsmith and Tyriq Harris – who were all-conference picks this season.
“That sounded great to me,” Harris said when hearing Healy talk about his affinity for that position.