Power in rivalry between Appalachian State, 49ers depends on who owns Charlotte

Charlotte’s Benny LeMay (32) is tackled by Appalachian State’s Trey Cobb (45) in the Mountaineers’ 45-9 victory last season.
Charlotte’s Benny LeMay (32) is tackled by Appalachian State’s Trey Cobb (45) in the Mountaineers’ 45-9 victory last season.

Consider the final whistle for Saturday’s game between Charlotte and Appalachian State a ceasefire.

For the next seven years, these two programs — in-state FBS rivals trying to reach the same prominence as their ACC brethren — will be fighting a cold war.

Their next scheduled game against each other isn’t until 2026, but the rivalry won’t end there for two programs separated by about 100 miles.

They will keep squaring off indefinitely on the recruiting trail, the lifeblood of college football programs. And it’s bound to intensify, especially in the Charlotte area, a hotbed of talent that both programs want to claim as their own.

Both programs are in Year 1 with a new coach, and it didn’t take long for either to understand the importance of owning Charlotte.

“I can tell it’s important, based on the regional matchup, based on the state (matchup),” said Appalachian’s Eliah Drinkwitz, who was N.C. State’s offensive coordinator from 2016-18. “Based on the energy they put on it, owning that part of the state, and based on the energy we put into it. Recruiting (the Charlotte area) is an important place for us. And we’ve got a lot of great fans down there.”

The 49ers’ Will Healy wasn’t halfway through his introductory news conference last December when he talked of how important recruiting the Charlotte area will be to the success of his program. He attended a high school playoff game in Charlotte that night.

It also didn’t take him long to realize that the specter of Appalachian — consistently one of the top programs among college football’s Group of 5 conferences — looms large in his new town, which is also fertile recruiting ground for ACC and SEC programs. He formulated a plan to combat a built-in advantage the Mountaineers have in the region.

“I’ve always said that in order to beat people on the field, you have to beat them recruiting,” Healy said. “I think we are both looking for the same talent level. But where we have to make a niche for ourselves is we have to have players that are confident enough in themselves to step out and make an unpopular decision and become a popular decision. That was one of the things that was so intriguing to me here, was that we can take this program to new heights and places never been before. We have to find players that match that mentality.”

Although both programs are relatively new to playing on the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision level, they’ve come from completely different places. The Mountaineers were dominant in the Football Championship Subdivision (including a landmark upset of Michigan in 2007) before joining the Sun Belt Conference in 2015. They’ve won three consecutive league titles and four straight bowl games since.

Charlotte, on the other hand, only started its football program in 2013 as an FCS independent. In 2015, as FBS conferences were realigning on a regular basis, the 49ers grabbed at the chance of moving up quickly and joined Conference USA. They’ve never had a winning season.

Charlotte’s roster includes 63 players from North Carolina, with 30 from the Charlotte region. The Mountaineers have 48 players from North Carolina on their roster, 16 from greater Charlotte. But Appalachian also recruits heavily in Florida (18) and Georgia (17).

The 49ers and Mountaineers have always recruited against each other, to a point. In those earlier days, Charlotte was recruiting as a start-up program; the Mountaineers were an established power and able to land more than their share of players from in and around Charlotte.

But seven years in, the 49ers now have Healy, a recruiting whiz who turned around a moribund program at Austin Peay with what was regarded as the FCS’ top recruiting class in 2016.

“(Appalachian and Charlotte) are pretty much recruiting the same kind of player now, guys who can contribute at a high level in Division I,” said Mallard Creek High coach Mike Palmieri, who has players at both programs. “I don’t think they talk to each other much, but they’re going after the same type of kid.”

D’Mitri Emmanuel, a sophomore offensive lineman from Marvin Ridge High in Waxhaw, turned down an offer from Appalachian State to play at Charlotte.

“I felt like App State has an established program with a lot of tradition,” Emmanuel said. “They’ve had a lot of good players who have already had success and gone on to the next level.

“But at Charlotte, I felt like I had a chance to get in there and help build a program and take it to the next level while I’m here. So, (Appalachian) has the tradition and has been good for a while. I feel like we have an opportunity to put our program on the map.”

With the early-signing period beginning in December, both programs already have verbal commitments from high school seniors.

Two players who have committed to the Mountaineers — quarterback Navy Shuler of Asheville and offensive lineman Seth Williams of Statesville — turned down offers from Charlotte.

None of the five players who have committed to the 49ers so far received an offer from Appalachian, although two — defensive backs Briston Bennett of Franklin, Tenn., and Anthony Jackson of Rock Hill — reportedly had offers from several Power 5 programs.

The 49ers and Mountaineers, who both won their season openers last week against FCS competition, aren’t scheduled to play again until 2026. Perhaps by then, Healy’s philosophy about recruiting against Appalachian will have changed. But today, he’ll stick with this.

“We’re selling two totally different things,” Healy said. “Right now, in looking at where our program is and where their program is, we’re looking at a guy who doesn’t want to go somewhere that’s established and jump on a bandwagon. We want them confident enough to go bet on themselves to go be the guy who wants to go win a game like they did (against Michigan) in ’07 and put their program on the map.

“As far as where they are and where they’re respected nationally, that’s somewhere we would like to be as well, and where we’re fighting to be.”

David Scott: @davidscott14

Charlotte (1-0) at Appalachian State (1-0)

When: 3:30 p.m, Saturday

Where: Kidd Brewer Stadium, Boone

Watch: ESPN+

Listen: 730-AM, Charlotte; 1270-AM, Gastonia-Charlotte; 97.3-FM, North Wilkesboro; 1150-AM, Rock Hill.