The Charlotte 49ers open preseason football practice Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. Here’s what to watch for as the 49ers (who return five starters on offense and seven on defense from last season’s 5-7 team) work toward their season opener on Aug. 29 against Gardner-Webb at Richardson Stadium:
1. A new coach, new era.
For the first time in Charlotte football history, the 49ers will have a coach not named Brad Lambert, who was fired when his team went 5-7 last season. Will Healy, 34 and the second youngest coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision, brings a new style and outlook to the program, which has been slow to get off the ground in Conference USA.
2. Wanted: More points, more sacks.
Healy is installing new systems on both sides of the ball. There are obvious reasons for the changes. Despite leading the conference in time of possession and converting on third down 42.1 percent of the time, the 49ers only averaged 21.7 points per game last season. So the offense’s new spread option will look for more punch, although it won’t appear much different than the pro style the 49ers ran last season, except that Charlotte’s quarterback — more on that later — will take most of the snaps out of the shotgun.
Defensively, the 49ers will switch to a 4-2-5 formation, which will emphasize rushing the passer. Charlotte only got to the quarterback 19 times last season, which ranked 13th in their 14-team league.
3. Quarterback competition.
Although sophomore Chris Reynolds likely has the inside track on getting the starting quarterback job back, Healy insists it’s an open competition between Reynolds, senior Evan Shirreffs and grad transfer Brett Kean. A potential fourth option, sophomore Brady Pope, has left the program to play baseball for the school.
Healy likes Reynolds’ savvy and his ability to move the team, which he did fairly successfully last season before injuring his ankle. But Healy also thinks Shirreffs’ size and arm strength might be a good fit. Kean, a backup at South Florida who played in 17 games in three seasons for the Bulls, is obviously the wild card.
4. O-lines holes to fill.
Of all the units, graduation hit the offensive line hardest. Three starters (including Nate Davis, drafted by the Tennessee Titans) are gone. The two returning starters — center Jaelin Fisher and tackle Cameron Clark — are both talented. Guards D’Mitri Emmanuel (Marvin Ridge High) and Jalen Allen played well in the spring, as did tackle Dominic Taylor.
5. Defense better?
The 49ers had one of the stronger defenses in Conference USA in 2018, and it has a chance to be better. Most everybody is back (linebacker Juwan Foggie the notable exception), including ends Tyriq Harris and Alex Highsmith, linebacker Jeff Gemmells and safety Ben DeLuca. Two transfers from Power 5 programs — defensive back Marquill Osborne (Tennessee) and linebacker Brelin Faison-Waldon (Penn State) — will bear watching, as well.