College Sports

Last in Conference USA? Try first, Charlotte 49ers say

Apparently, media members from around Conference USA don’t hold high hopes for the Charlotte 49ers as they picked them to finish last in the East Division during the 2019 season.

Maybe that skepticism is warranted. But maybe not.

Charlotte finished 5-7 last season (4-4 in league play) but has a new head coach in Will Healy, who is making the jump from the FCS.

Besides, being an underdog is a status redshirt senior defensive end Alex Highsmith, a 2018 first-team All-CUSA selection, says he welcomes.

“I came to Charlotte a walk-on. I’ve always embraced the underdog role,” Highsmith said Thursday during the Conference USA Football Media Kickoff. “It just gives me more motivation and for the rest of the guys as well, more motivation to help us to be the best we can be and prove people wrong.”

In 2018, Charlotte’s noteworthy wins mostly came at home, against Old Dominion in September, Western Kentucky in mid-October, Southern Miss in late October and a 27-24 road victory at Florida Atlantic in their final regular season game. There, freshman kicker Jonathan Cruz, the 2019 C-USA Preseason Special Teams Player of the Year, drilled a late 56-yard field goal for the eventual game-winner.

For senior running back Benny LeMay, a second-team All-CUSA selection in 2018 who rushed for 1,243 yards, those victories show that the 49ers can compete in C-USA and vie for a spot in the conference championship game and a bowl.

“We beat a significant amount of top contender teams,” LeMay said. “FIU (who we lost to by seven) went to a bowl game last year. FAU was the previous conference champs, Western Kentucky (is) a powerhouse university. I feel like we can contend with a lot of people in this league and be top contenders. Those were just the first bricks and milestones of showing that we can actually do it.”

Offensively, Charlotte returns five starters, including most of the offensive line, and seven on defense, giving Healy, the 2017 Eddie Robinson Award recipient as the FCS national coach of the year at Austin Peay, additional cause for optimism.

Will Healy takes over a Charlotte 49ers football team that finished 5-7 last season (4-4 in Conference USA play). Tony Gutierrez AP

Having most of the offensive line returning is a nice luxury for Healy in his first season. “Obviously, losing Nate Davis, you lose a third-round draft pick and we don’t have those falling off trees in Charlotte,” he said. “But I feel really good about that group. I think we’ll have some competition at right tackle, but the other four are pretty solidified and were pretty impressive in the spring.”

Defensively, Healy expects incoming transfers Brelin Faison-Walden, a junior linebacker from Greensboro previously at Penn State, and Marquill Osborne, a senior defensive back from Cornelius who transferred from Tennessee, to play a considerable number of snaps.

“Both those guys have been really good (in practice). Brelin’s got three years left and Marquill’s just got one,” Healy said. “Those were local guys that wanted to come back home. When we did the background, the research, they were tremendous fits. Great people and have worked really hard.”

Charlotte senior defensive end Alex Highsmith, a former walk-on, says he welcomes the underdog role. “It just gives me more motivation and for the rest of the guys as well, more motivation to help us to be the best we can be and prove people wrong.” Tony Gutierrez AP

Highsmith and LeMay agree the high energy which Healy has injected into the program has been infectious. Healy expects Charlotte to win a C-USA championship and go to a bowl game for the first time.

“I think that better be the expectation at our place,” Healy said. “It’s just lip service without earning that opportunity. You expect to win every game and that’s going to be our mentality. Again, I don’t underestimate the challenge we have ahead to do that. It won’t be easy, but it should be an expectation for us as a program.”

LeMay says the team is on board.

“It’s been a long road, a lot of hard seasons and losing is never fun. That’s just going to make it so sweet when we win this year,” he said. “We’re putting forth the effort and the work right now to have a productive season and I feel like we’re going to turn a lot of heads this year.”

Charlotte 49ers players Benny LeMay (center) and Alex Highsmith (right) share the stage with first-year coach Will Healy during Conference USA’s media day in Frisco, Texas, on Thursday. COURTESY OF CONFERENCE USA