|PHOTO | SAM ROBERTS|
|Charlotte 49ers linebacker Tyler Murray returns as the defense’s leader in tackles (49) and interceptions (two) from the 2020 season.|
Charlotte 49ers football continues its pursuit of uncharted territory.
Coach Will Healy took Charlotte to its first winning season (7-6, 5-3 Conference USA) and bowl game in 2019. Then COVID-19 happened, and while the 49ers did get in a semblance of a season (2-4, 2-2 C-USA) in 2020, the momentum was short-lived. Healy recalled game planning for 12 games last season, nine of which were canceled.
“There were times last year where it kind of caught us by surprise when we actually did get to play a game and I don’t know if I did a great job of mentally preparing our guys to play a game on Saturday, because I was so consumed with telling them everything that was going on during the week, especially when you get to the second or third game canceled, it’s like man these guys need to know every rumor every, every situation that’s going on, every positive test, every contact trace,” Healy said. “I filled their minds with all of that so much that I don’t know if I did a great job of preparing them to go play in a game. Going 2-4 and having nine games canceled, that is not a great student athlete experience. Not even close.”
Charlotte’s season kicks off on Sept. 3 against Duke, marking the first time the 49ers will host an ACC, Power Five opponent. The Blue Devils were one of two non-conference opponents the 49ers faced last season. Duke dominated in their inaugural meeting, beating Charlotte 53-19. Other future Power Five opponents scheduled to play at Jerry Richardson Stadium include Maryland (Big Ten) in 2022, North Carolina (ACC) in 2025 and Ole Miss (SEC) in 2026.
“We want to win Power Five football games, well we had an opportunity to do that last year and Duke blew us out,” Healy said. “We’re excited about hosting Duke at home. A Power Five football game. That’s great. If you don’t perform well, it’s just them doing you a favor coming here.”
Healy raised the expectations for 49ers football when athletics director Mike Hill hired him in 2018. The challenge becomes sustainable improvement as Healy heads into his third season at Charlotte, picked to finish fourth in C-USA’s Eastern Division.
“It’s great to talk about winning conference championships,” Healy said. “We actually have to compete and win a conference championship for that to be reality for everybody. Do I feel like that should be an expectation here? Yes, but I don’t believe it can become an expectation until you’ve already done it. It’s kind of like creating rivalries. It’d be great to have a million different rivalries. We have to beat some people for it to be a rivalry.”
Healy said he believes they have the leadership to do it. That starts with players like senior wide receiver Victor Tucker and senior linebacker Tyler Murray. Tucker has been a force since prior to Healy’s arrival. He led Charlotte in receiving yards last season, with 400 on 30 receptions and two touchdowns, and he has led the team in receiving yards since 2018.
“For me, I plan on this being my last season,” Tucker said. “It’s one more opportunity to do what I came here to do — win the conference championship. It’s just making the most of every opportunity for me and I hope to reinvent my image, and the way they see me as a football player so I’m going to be a totally different guy this year.”
Murray transferred to Charlotte from Troy last year. He made an instant impact, leading the 49ers with 49 tackles and two interceptions.
“We’re looking way better than last year heading into training camp,” Murray said. “I see a big difference with a lot of leadership, a lot of younger guys stepping in big time roles.”