Why Will Healy might unlock Charlotte’s football potential

Why Will Healy might unlock Charlotte’s football potential

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Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Over the course of three and a half years and 200-something episodes of a podcast, you’re going to end up with some pet topics. That has been the case with Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody, hosted by Steven Godfrey and yours truly.

As I mentioned in last year’s Charlotte preview, one of Godfrey’s pet topics is how high of a ceiling coaches think the UNCC job might have, with its combination of recruiting potential and low expectations. We might get to find out if they’re right.

Charlotte’s first FBS-level coaching change was memorable. The 49ers dumped Brad Lambert on November 18, the day after their seventh loss of the season. They would finish with nearly as many wins in 2018 (five) as in their first three FBS seasons combined (seven), and they had finally dug out of the FBS cellar in S&P+ rankings (they were still just 118th, but that was eight spots better than any previous performance). But the improvement had been minimal and one-dimensional, so it was time to make a move.

Their first move was a big one: they all but wooed James Madison head coach Mike Houston. He had gone 37-6 in three seasons at JMU and had briefly wrenched away North Dakota State’s stranglehold on the FCS title, winning at Fargo as part of 2016’s championship run. Despite fewer scholarships, JMU had undoubtedly been better than Charlotte, and he agreed in principle to come aboard.

But then he dragged his feet. ECU, with its AAC money, began wooing him as well. Charlotte cut its losses.

Only when compared to Houston’s record does Will Healy’s name seem underwhelming. The 34-year-old Healy won the 2017 Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year award after pulling off one of the most dramatic turnarounds you’ll ever see. He inherited an ongoing Austin Peay losing streak, and it stretched to 29 games before his Governors whomped Morehead State in the third game of his second year there. But once they won, they kept on winning — they went 7-1 in the Ohio Valley and 8-4 overall (8-2 against FCS opponents) and damn near made the FCS playoffs. Should have, in fact.

APSU slipped a bit in Healy’s third season. The Governors lost every close game and fell to 5-6 overall, but most of the shine remained. You could argue the experience he gained in building something out of nothing in Clarksville applies more specifically to the Charlotte job than Houston’s performance — making a very good program better — would’ve.

Healy won’t be starting from scratch. He inherits a senior-heavy defense that improved quite a bit in coordinator Glenn Spencer’s only year. (The former Oklahoma State DC moved on to FAU following Lambert’s firing.) They ranked 24th in Rushing S&P+ and return most of the reasons why.

The offense is a work in progress, to put it diplomatically. The 49ers will start as many as nine seniors on defense, and by the time the offense finds some traction, the defense might have to be rebuilt. Still, the 49ers had begun to show a hint of promise before Lambert left, and Healy might — might — be able to build on that.


Offense


Poor Benny LeMay. The senior-to-be from the Charlotte area has done everything he can over the last couple of years to drag the 49ers offense forward.

In 2017, he rushed for 158 yards in a four-point loss to NC A&T, then rushed for 178 yards in a one-point loss to FIU. He finished that year averaging 5.3 yards per carry for an offense that had little else to offer, then he averaged 5.4 in 2018 with the same “LeMay in a losing effort” performances — 129 yards in an eight-point loss to eventual C-USA East champ MTSU, 159 and four scores in a seven-point loss to FIU, etc.

Barring injury, LeMay will likely finish his career with over 3,000 career rushing yards; he also hasn’t yet played on an offense that ranked higher than 122nd in Off. S&P+. Just imagine what he could do with help.

He might get help from a change in scheme, at least — Healy named former Willie Fritz assistant Alex Atkins as his first UNCC offensive coordinator. Atkins worked for the run-happy Fritz at both Georgia Southern and Tulane, recently as offensive line coach. We’ll see what he tries in his first year, but odds are good it will feature Benny.


NCAA Football: Charlotte at Tennessee

Benny LeMay
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tulane shifted away from its spread option roots a hair in 2018, asking its quarterbacks to throw nearly 25 passes per game. Considering the non-LeMay personnel, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Charlotte attempted something similar — LeMay’s returning backups averaged just 3.7 yards per carry, and the line only returns two starters. (Redshirt freshman and former star recruit Terrick Smalls Jr. will have a chance to take on a decent load if he’s ready.)

Receivers Victor Tucker and Rico Arnold combined for 1,014 yards, 13.3 yards per catch, and 8.2 yards per target. Whenever anything exciting happened in the Charlotte passing game last year, these sophomores were probably the reasons. Plus, Healy just added seven to the receiving corps (five WRs, two TEs) in his first class, including high-three-star freshman Noah Henderson. You probably don’t do that if you’re running the ball non-stop.

One more reason to throw: your quarterbacks aren’t extremely mobile. Both Chris Reynolds and Evan Shirreffs averaged about one non-sack carry for every seven pass attempts (not a high ratio), and Reynolds, the far more successful passer of the two, averaged only about 3.3 yards per carry with a 27 percent rushing success rate. A burner, he is not. USF transfer Brett Kean, added in January, isn’t either.

So Healy hired a run-first coordinator, then added a bunch of pass-first personnel. That’s interesting, if nothing else.

It bears mentioning that Reynolds was showing potential before an ankle injury. The 5’11 redshirt freshman completed 65 percent of his passes, with a 139.2 passer rating in six games. Shirreffs, a Miami transfer, completed 52 percent with a 101.5 rating.

Reynolds predictably struggled against a good Appalachian State, but Charlotte averaged 31 points per game against Fordham, ODU, and UMass, and in those games Reynolds went a combined 61-for-88 (69 percent) for 752 yards, six touchdowns, and no interceptions. In those games, Tucker caught 22 passes for 336 yards — that both Reynolds and Tucker are still just sophomores shows there’s a pretty high ceiling. Atkins will have to balance between continuing to give them further chances to develop while giving LeMay as many carries as he can handle.


Defense


Marcus Cooper and Brandon West have a higher bar to clear. Charlotte’s new co-coordinators inherit a unit that showed spectacular upside … in at least one of its main duties.

Spencer’s only year in Charlotte produced some of the best run defense in the Group of 5. The 49ers ranked 19th in rushing marginal efficiency, 18th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), and 42nd in opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining at least four yards), and they were able to generate pass pressure in non-blitz situations (22nd in standard downs sack rate).

Everything fell apart once opponents were forced to pass, but … baby steps.

Charlotte had five primary havoc producers (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbls), and in end Alex Highsmith, linebacker Jeff Gemmell, safety Ben DeLuca, and corner Nafees Lyon, four return. Only linebacker Juwan Foggie departs. Almost all of the primary returnees are seniors, though, so Cooper and West will be up against a deadline.

Cooper and West are both former Healy coordinators. Cooper led APSU’s defense in 2016-17 before becoming Minnesota’s line coach in 2018, and West took over for Cooper when he left.

Their Governor defenses weren’t particularly disruptive. At their best moments, they were best in the big-play prevention department. While the run defense didn’t allow much of anything, the pass defense certainly allowed big plays. UNCC was 100th in passing marginal explosiveness and 101st on passing downs, when the pass rush failed to get home and opponents had the option of completion short or long passes. Even with Lyon making quite a few plays (three TFLs, five breakups), Charlotte allowed a 66 percent completion rate, 126th in FBS.


Tennessee v Auburn

Marquill Osborne (3)
Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

The secondary gets a refresh, and that might not be bad. DeLuca and Lyon return, but the other two starters don’t. But corners Quinton Jordan and Robert Cheatem are both likely to return; they missed 2018 after combining for 67 tackles and eight breakups the previous year. Plus, the 49ers could get a boost from Tennessee transfer and former blue-chipper Marquill Osborne. It’s unclear to me if he graduated from UT, but the NCAA’s Random Wheel of Destiny could declare him eligible anyway.

(Another power conference transfer, former Penn State linebacker Brelin Faison-Walden, appears to be in the same boat. A redshirt sophomore to be, he definitely didn’t graduate in State College. But with the NCAA, that only sometimes matters.)


Special Teams

Lambert left Healy a nice present in special teams. Place-kicker Jonathan Cruz ranked 20th in FBS in FG efficiency, going 8-for-10 on field goals longer than 40 yards, and he was only a freshman. Even if Charlotte’s offense isn’t a lot better, he can make sure the 49ers get points out of any scoring chances they can scrounge around for. He was good in kickoffs, too.

The rest of the unit was nondescript, but UNCC ranked 69th in Special Teams S&P+ because of Cruz, and they’ll have him a while longer.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Gardner-Webb NR 24.1 92%
7-Sep at Appalachian State 31 -30.8 4%
14-Sep Massachusetts 125 4.6 61%
21-Sep at Clemson 3 -50.2 0%
28-Sep Florida Atlantic 79 -14.0 21%
12-Oct at Florida International 88 -17.0 16%
19-Oct at Western Kentucky 101 -11.7 25%
26-Oct North Texas 84 -13.3 22%
2-Nov Middle Tennessee 104 -6.0 36%
9-Nov at UTEP 130 8.2 68%
23-Nov Marshall 77 -14.2 21%
30-Nov at Old Dominion 119 -2.8 44%

Lambert’s last season was his most promising, and while it wasn’t enough, it painted a more optimistic picture for his successor.

The trick, however, will be class balance. The defense is senior-heavy, as is the run game, but the passing offense is crazy-young and could be exciting sooner than later. There’s upside, but a lot of it has a bad expiration date.

It’s not hard to see the combination of LeMay in the backfield, Reynolds, Tucker, and Arnold in the passing game, and a veteran-heavy defense improving enough to eke out a bowl bid. Still, S&P+ suggests that the most likely scenario is closer to four wins. With the turnover coming in 2020, the ceiling might be four then, too.

Luckily, Healy’s not afraid of a hard job. He got APSU off the mat more quickly than anyone could have expected, and he’s in fertile recruiting ground.


Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.

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