UMass opponents preview: Charlotte hopes to build under Will Healy

  • University of Massachusetts sophomore defensive lineman Chinedu Ogbonna, right, pressures Charlotte quarterback Chris Reynolds in the first quarter of the Minutemen’s 49-31 win last fall. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • University of Massachusetts sophomore defensive lineman Jake Byczko, left, and junior linebacker Leon Flanagan Jr., right, force a fumble by Charlotte quarterback Chris Reynolds on a sack in the first quarter of the Minutemen’s 49-31 win last fall. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • University of Massachusetts senior wider receiver Andy Isabella, left, takes Denzel Irvin of Charlotte into the end zone with him on a 15-yard reception from Michael Curtis to put the Minutemen up 13-0 in the first quarter of their win last fall. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 7/10/2019 6:59:58 PM

For two days, UMass coach Walt Bell was the second youngest FBS head coach in the nation.

On Sept. 14, he’ll travel with the Minutemen to face the man who’s just seven months younger than Bell. Charlotte coach Will Healy was hired two days after Bell and enters his first season in charge of the 49ers after three years at Austin Peay. Kent State’s Sean Lewis is the country’s youngest coach.

Healy enters a different situation than most first-year coaches, as he acquires a 49ers program that is coming off its best season in its short history at 5-7. One of those seven setbacks, though, came in a 49-35 loss to UMass after the Minutemen went up 21-0 after just 3:14.

Healy is known for being able to resurrect programs, going 13-10 in his final two seasons at Austin Peay, a school that won just once in the previous four seasons. He overhauled the staff at Charlotte, as he tries to work his magic on a program that seems to be headed in the right direction since joining FBS in 2015.

OFFENSE: Charlotte has not one, but two quarterbacks returning who started multiple games last year, a rare luxury to have on offense. But Chris Reynolds is the clear favorite to start over Evan Shirreffs after an efficient start to his year before a season-ending injury.

Reynolds was an effective passer in his six healthy games, completing 65 percent of his passes and tossing six touchdowns compared to just two interceptions. Meanwhile, Shirreffs was a 52-percent passer and threw twice as many interceptions (four) as touchdowns (two).

Reynolds will have his main target, Victor Tucker, back after a strong freshman campaign in which he led Charlotte with 54 catches and 712 yards. Third-leading receiving Rico Arnold also returns to aid the group, but no other receiver caught two passes last season.

Where Charlotte should excel the most offensively is on the ground with both of its main two rushing options from last season returning. Benny LeMay gashed defenses for 1,243 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground while averaging 5.4 yards per carry. He’s spelled by Aaron McAllister, who scored twice and ran for 395 yards on 90 carries last season.

The production in the running game is dependent on an offensive line that must replace three starters up front. The unit itself is rather young with just three juniors or seniors on the roster outside of returning starters Cam Clark (left tackle) and Jaelin Fisher (center).

DEFENSE: The 49ers return seven starters from a defense that ranked 22nd in the nation last year in total defense, allowing just 337 yards per game.

Alex Highsmith anchors the defensive line after compiling a school-record 17.5 tackles-for-loss last year while also being credited with eight hurries and a pair of forced fumbles. Tyriq Harris and Timmy Horne also return along the line for the 49ers as staunch run stoppers.

Charlotte’s other main pass rusher is linebacker Jeff Gemmell, who led the 49ers with four sacks last season in addition to eight hurries. Gemmell ranked second on the team with 87 tackles, trailing only safety Ben DeLuca’s 92.

DeLuca leads a secondary that lost two starters, but will fill those voids with a group of experienced reserves. Senior Nafees Lyon tied for the team lead with five pass breakups and also added 42 tackles as the third corner. Fellow senior Marquavis Gibbs pulled down an interception while playing all 12 games, one of four Charlotte players who had a pick last season.

Josh Walfish can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JoshWalfishDHG. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at

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