It’s year three for Charlotte’s head football coach Will Healy and there was plenty to be excited about after this year’s unique Green-Gold spring game that featured an offense vs. defense format with no scoring system.
Although the 2020 spring game was cancelled due to the coronavirus, this was an opportunity for the limited crowd of 3,890 fans in Jerry Richardson Stadium on April 24 to get a glimpse into what the 49ers are building for the upcoming season.
“For us to be able to go ahead and get some really good work in today was exciting to me,” said Coach Healy after the game. “I think our guys came out with really good energy and we got a lot out of today, a lot that we can fix still and work on.”
Here are five takeaways from Saturday’s spring game.
It’s Chris Reynolds’ Spot to Lose
A lot of talk has swirled around leading up to the spring game about who should be the starting quarterback for the 49ers this upcoming season. Well, as of right now, it’s Chris Reynolds’ spot to lose.
The incoming redshirt senior only played one drive in the spring game but led the team down the field and scored the opening touchdown. The drive included a 49-yard run from No. 3 before being chased down. Later in the drive, Reynolds completed an 18-yard touchdown pass to Cameron Dollar.
“He goes one series and drops the mic after a touchdown. It’s what you expect him to do. He’s done an exceptional job all spring,” said Healy. “We feel like we’re in really good hands because he’s running the show. A great first series for him.”
It’s still early to say who should be the starter but Reynolds was the most relaxed and composed quarterback on the field Saturday.
Running back room is wide open
Aaron McAllister and Tre Harbison, the team’s two leading ball carriers last season, exited the program which leaves a big hole to fill at the running back position for a team that tends to run the ball more often than throwing it.
Shadrick Byrd, a transfer from Iowa, started as the lead back but the day was filled with multiple guys receiving carries, including 38 yards from McKinley Nelson. Elijah Turner had the longest run of the game for the halfbacks with a 16-yard carry and later scored the second touchdown of the day off an eight-yard reception from Dylan Ratliff.
The team’s most experienced running back, Calvin Camp, didn’t participate in Saturday’s action which led to the younger backs getting meaningful reps. Unless one or two guys shine above the rest as the lead back, the 49ers could have a three-player committee at the running back position.
Some transfers shined, other did not
Transferring to a new program can be difficult or an easy transition depending on the athlete. Starting off with those that struggled, James Foster didn’t have his best game. The transfer from Texas A&M was the third quarterback to command the offense and started the game in the worst way possible, throwing the ball behind his receiver for an interception on his first play from scrimmage.
He did have some flashes on his second drive, including a sideline pass to Taylor Thompson followed up with a 17-yard run. However, later in the drive, Foster muffed the snap in the red zone and was recovered by the defense.
Despite all that, there were some fresh faces in a 49er uniform that showed off their talents in the spring game like Jon Alexander from Kansas State, who secured the interception off Foster. Kofi Wardlow, a Notre Dame transfer, stuffed the gaps, earning half a sack and also recovered a fumble.
Healy said both players have continued to improve since stepping onto the field and could be a difference maker as to why the team wins games.
“Getting (Alexander and Wardlow) here to go through an offseason with us has been really important,” Healy said. “They’ve grown up a lot, they’ve matured a lot, they’ve bought into what we’ve asked them to do.”
Defense was the bright spot
Outside of the first possession with Reynolds at quarterback, the defense settled into the game and were in control for the remaining drives. Over the next few series, the defense forced four turnovers and continued to make timely plays all day. The offense only scored one more touchdown on the last drive of the day.
Some of the returning starters from last season didn’t participate, such as Tyler Murray and Markees Watts. With all these defensive players meshed together, there’s plenty of upside for what the 49er defense can do.
“We got some playmakers that can make a name for themselves that are gonna help us in the long run,” said Reynolds.
New defensive back's competing
One of the biggest holes for this team to fill is in the secondary where two starters from last season are no longer on the team in Ben DeLuca and Nafees Lyon. The team will be returning Antone Williams and Lance McMillan but the other two spots remained a question until Alexander and Tank Robinson showed up.
Even though the conditions weren’t the best, the 49ers secondary were flying to the ball, making it difficult for the quarterbacks. Robinson praised the team’s secondary and has high hopes for the backline this upcoming season.
“I feel like we have one of the best secondaries in this conference,” Alexander said. “Coming from the Big 12, I’ve seen a lot of good dudes and I would compare this defense we have to some of the best dudes I’ve seen from the Big 12. I like this defense. We got a pretty good chance this season.”