Charlotte is gearing up for their final season in C-USA
Charlotte is entering their 10th season of playing football, the fourth under Will Healy. After securing Charlotte’s first bowl bid in season 1 under Healy, the program hasn’t been able to sustain success. 2020 was a well-documented disaster with COVID and cancellation-after-cancellation. 2021 started out with a bang and the program securing its first ever Power 5 victory versus Duke, and then after hitting 4-2 Charlotte dropped 5 out of their last 6 games. Let’s take a look into the roster and my thoughts for all three phases for the program as we anxiously await Week 0.
Charlotte is poised to have what I feel is the top Wide Receiver room in C-USA, and perhaps all of G5 football. The group is headlined by Grant DuBose who exploded onto the scene last year after transferring into Charlotte from Miles College. DuBose has all the looks of next-level WR (NFL Draft Bible just gave him a 2nd round grade), standing at 6’3 and 200 pounds, he has what feels like an unlimited catch-radius and the swag you’d expect a top-flight WR to have. Beyond DuBose is rising true Sophomore Elijah Spencer, C-USA’s reigning Freshman of the Year (a first for the program). Spencer, 6’1 and 193 pounds, reeled in 6 touchdowns on 28 receptions. Simply put, great things seemed to happen when the ball as in 9’s hands. Rounding out the trio of WR’s is Vic Tucker, another Super Senior and the programs second all-time leading receiver. Tucker was hurt last year, yet he still amassed 51 catches for 600-plus yards and 2 touchdowns.
Tucker, DuBose and Spencer lead the way, but the depth is there. Nolan Groulx, a former four-star prospect, Jairus Mack and Roger “Fresh” Walters all have the talent to see the field as well.
Tight Ends are a versatile part of the offense here, typically having 1 blocker/mover type, and then others that I’d call more hybrid types that can go out wide and make plays vertically. Last year Taylor Thompson blew out his knee, but he’s expected to be back and ready to go. Look for Jake Clemons to fill the role Ryan Carriere as a blocker. Healy landed Austin Peay transfer Eugene Minter Jr, and he’s flashed as a play maker during camp.
The Offensive Line is the only question mark on this side of the ball. The losses of D’Mitri Emmanuel (Florida State), Hunter Kelly (exhausted eligibility), Chibueze Nwanna (turned pro) and Dejan Rasuo (graduated). Charlotte gets Jon Jacobs back from injury, and added two Power Five transfers: Matt Rosso (Rutgers) and Michael Statham Jr (Pittsburgh). As it relates to this season, I’d expect to see a good bit of Jacobs and Rosso. Statham is a mountain of a human, so I’m interested to see how OL Coach Pete Rossomando develops him over time. We’re all familiar with Jaxon Hughes, Ashton Gist and TJ Moore, but look for some younger guys to help provide depth: Knox Boyd, Panda Askew, Johnny King, and Arabee Muslim. Depth here remains a concern, there is a lot of youth beyond the first line on the depth chart.
The Quarterback is in great hands with Chris Reynolds, however we’ve seen injury issues before with him and the depth behind him is largely unproven. James Foster filled in for Reynolds some last year, you can see the talent but the question still remains if it can materialize. Competing for QB2 snaps is with Foster is RS Freshman Xavier Williams. Beyond those 3 scholarship QB’s Charlotte has 2 walk-ons: RS Sophomore Trexler Ivey and true Freshman Steven Johnson.
Let’s get Defensive
Without hesitation I believe every player, staff member, fan, etc. would tell you this season hinges on Charlotte’s defensive improvement. There are 3 new defensive coaches on this side of the ball, with only Linebackers coach Adam Braithwaite returning. The new faces are: Greg Brown (Defensive Coordinator / Secondary Coach), Brian Baker (Defensive Line), and Kap Dede, PhD. (Defensive Backs Coach). Brown and Baker both provide much-needed experience, and Dede has ties with Brown and should ease the transition to their new scheme.
Last years defense was a bottom-five unit in NCAA, so there is ample room for improvement.
Markees Watts will be the face of the defense as he seeks to break Alex Highsmith’s all-time sack record. Recently Coach Baker was on 730AM where talked about Watts and how when he watched film, he was always on the field. Seems like Charlotte will work to get Watts more breathers to keep him fresh during the later stages of games. Less snaps for Watts means we’re going to need guys to step up behind, and opposite, of him. The addition of Amir Siddiq (via Central Michigan) should be an instant boost to Charlotte’s ability to get to the quarterback. Siddiq had 29 pressures last season, including 5 sacks for the Chippewas. For comparison sake Markees Watts had 28 total pressures and 6 sacks in 2021. Siddiq’s production via pass rush matched Watts, yet he played approximately 250 LESS snaps in 2021.
Beyond Watts and Siddiq there are a handful of guys I think we’ll see, but most are largely unproven. Kofi Wardlow & Michael Kelly both played a lot of snaps at DE last year, but were ineffective in creating havoc. I’m keeping an eye on Tyson Clawson, he flashed the ability to get to the QB last season with 5 pressures in just over 50 snaps vs pass. Compare that to Wardlow and Kelly who generated just 12 in over 300 snaps. Other scholarship guys in the room to potentially help on the edge are: RS Sophomore Darion Smith, and RS Freshman Miles Posey.
The Defensive Tackle spot gets a little more unclear, gone are Mikel Horton, Bryan Wallace, Siah Sa’o and Joshua Bailey. Those 4 accounted for approximately 54% of our DT snaps. Three young guys were in the rotation last year: Jalar Holley, Dez Morgan and Miguel Jackson. Simply put, those guys need to take the next step in their development. Redshirt Senior Isaac Hampton returns from injury, as does highly-thought of RS Freshman Isaiah Potts. Charlotte added a potential impact DT with the late addition of Isaac Washington from Butler Community College. Washington was highly recruited out of East Surry HS (NC) and ultimately signed with Tennessee Vols over programs like Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, etc. I will state, I haven’t saw Washington in action, but from reading reports on him from high school, he could be a guy that’s athletic enough to help out at defensive end as well.
Is now the time for Derek Boykins to shine? As a highly recruited four star prospect (247 Sports) out of Central Cabarrus (NC) Boykins signed with South Carolina. Last year in his first chance to play for Charlotte he was hampered with injuries. I look for him to be the leader in this room. Prince Bemah will be back, and CLT added Power 5 transfer Chase Monroe from Wake Forest. Both are talented but injury prone. BJ Turner is the “old-head” in the room and will certainly get his share of snaps. Behind those guys are 4 freshmen, Cam Burden, Shyhiem Scotland, DJ Brown, and Reid Williford. Just by listening to Coach Healy on the radio, it sounds like Cam Burden is a name to watch here for now.
Charlotte’s secondary lost Safeties Jon Alexander to the NFL (UDFA with Chicago Bears) and Matt Martinez (graduation), but they return pretty much everyone else that played meaningful snaps. For me it’s extremely hard to get a read on this group. The coverage wasn’t great, but the pass rush was almost non-existent. Was it coaching/scheme and/or lack of talent? We’ll find out in just over a week.
Davondre Robinson is back, he was lost during the Duke game with a season-ending injury. Robinson is joined by fellow returning Safeties Solomon Rogers and Marcus Robitaille. Robitaille was thrust into the rotation due to injuries and when Jon Alexander was not with the team. Then we get to some familiar faces at the corner position: Trey Creamer, Lance McMillan, and Geo Howard, the potential is there, especially with Howard. Doug Newsome played over 200 snaps as a true freshman last season. Valerian Agbaw and Shedrick Ursery will also be in the mix. The staff also added 2 transfers for the secondary: Wayne Jones (Kansas State) and Jordan Anderson (Lafayette College) to help provide depth and competition in the back end of Greg Brown’s defense.
The growth Special Teams showed in 1 year under Tyler Hancock was easy to see, and honestly, I expected him to get plucked by a P5 given his groups performance. In 2020 PFF graded Charlotte’s special teams unit as the worst in FBS, then this past season we were tied for 63rd per PFF with Louisville and Boise State. I never thought I’d drop in Sickos Committee as a data reference, but it’s 2022, and here we are. Charlotte only allowed 22 punt returns yards in all of 2021, one of the tops in CFB, a great start to Bailey Rice’s career here at Charlotte.
Things get interesting when you jump over to the Kicker discussion. Jonathan Cruz hit the portal and landed with Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss. No doubt Lane can recall Cruz’s missile that sunk FAU in Brad Lambert’s last game at Charlotte. Charlotte had already signed high school kicking prospect Braeden McAlister from Porter Ridge (NC), but once this happened they landed Antonio Zita from Tennessee State. Zita to me seems a lot like Cruz, the leg is there but he seems a bit streaky. It’ll be an interesting, and crucial, piece to Charlotte’s puzzle to watch unfold this season. Aidan Laros is also in the Kickers’ room, he redshirted last season but reports are he has a strong leg as well.
When I sit back and think about what to expect for this season it’s hard to visualize how it shakes out given the uncertainty on the defensive side of things. Last years defense struggled in all areas, effectively giving the offense zero margin for error. If the defense can improve, even moderately under Greg Brown, Charlotte should have a legit shot at bowling with what should be a high-powered offense with Super Senior Quarterback Chris Reynolds leading the way. To be clear, I don’t expect the unit to become a top 75 defense over the course of one off-season. That said, if they can moderately improve to be a around Top 95-110 defense, we should be positioned to compete for a bowl bid.
I’m going to put on my ultra-green tinted glasses here and go with 8-4. I believe Charlotte’s defense has the individual components to perform much better than last year, but depth on defensive line and in the secondary are concerns. If that happens, Charlotte will be positioned to have a the best-season in the programs history. One thing is for sure, come August 27th, the hot takes are going to come firing from all directions at the conclusion of Charlotte’s season opener down in Boca Raton.