Five things to watch for as the Charlotte 49ers open fall football practice

10-13 minutes 8/4/2023
Friday marks 258 days since the Charlotte 49ers played their final snaps in Conference USA. In the eight months that have passed, Charlotte has completely reshaped itself with first-year head coach Biff Poggi, a new staff and 52 roster additions, including a new starting quarterback.
Much has been made about Charlotte’s last-place ranking in the American Athletic Conference’s preseason poll, and Poggi continues to add to his offseason soundbite collection. With fewer than 30 days until the 49ers take the field against South Carolina State, it’s time for Poggi and the 49ers to put their money where their mouth is.
“I would like to take whoever those writers were that voted on that and hold them upside down by their ankles and smack their heads off the ground a couple of times because they don’t know (expletive),” Poggi said on SiriusXM Radio during media day.
With the offseason program now behind it, Charlotte’s fall camp opens Friday morning, slated for 8 a.m. at Richardson Stadium.
Position battles, flaring tempers, popping pads and a competitive edge between the white lines — that’s what Poggi is looking for during training camp.
“Expect to see a lot of different players play. We go very deep in the front seven and the defensive backfield. We feel really good about 10 offensive linemen. And we have three quarterbacks,” Poggi said on WFNZ’s Wes and Walker show. “You can’t have good players and not play them. So, we’re going to play people. It makes us hard to prepare for, and camp will be highly competitive.
“I’ll be judged by wins. I expect that and I know how this works. We don’t win enough, I should be gone — and I’ll want to be gone. I was brought here to do one thing,” Poggi continued. “I don’t know who (last year’s) team was. I wasn’t here, but I can tell you this, this crowd isn’t that.”
On the eve of fall camp, let’s take a look at five story lines to watch for the 49ers:
Replacing the ‘Big 3’
With three of the best wideouts in program history — Elijah Spencer (Minnesota), Grant DuBose (Green Bay Packers) and Victor Tucker (graduation) — all gone, Charlotte must replace its top three producing receivers in catches, yards and touchdowns from a season ago.
Though Poggi has spoken extensively about becoming a run-first football team, the 49ers’ passing attack will still be a prominent portion of the offense.
“It will be a big part of it. We’re going to throw the football for sure. And we do it pretty well, but we want to build our offensive ethic around physicality in the run game,” Poggi continued on WFNZ. “That’s where it all starts, just like at Michigan. Everybody knew we were a running football team, and when that happens, and you’re successful doing it, it does a number of things for your team, but it also opens up the throwing game and gives you major explosive plays.”
In comes Jaden Bradley (6-foot-4, 195 pounds, Pittsburgh), Jack Hestera (6-1, 185, Colorado), Randy Fields (6-3, 197, UT-Martin/West Virginia) and Ike White (6-0, 180, Minnesota), pairing with returnees Jack Reynolds, Jairus Mack and Quinton Patten. The wideouts are coached by Mike Hartline, who served as an offensive analyst and quarterbacks coach at Auburn prior to joining the program.
Who steps up as the biggest threat to opposing defenses is yet to be determined, but Hestera’s performance in the spring game caught quarterback Jalon Jones’ attention.
“Jack is a Swiss Army knife. That’s little Cooper Kupp. He can do everything. He’s got the speed and route-running ability, and we’ve built a great chemistry. He’s someone I can come back to when the bullets are flying,” Jones said.
Similar to Jones, Hestera also chose to hit the transfer portal following a Deion Sanders coaching stop, this one after Sanders’ viral “I’m bringing my luggage, and it’s Louis” speech at Colorado.
Biff Poggi, 62, was named the head football coach of the Charlotte 49ers in November 2022. Poggi sat down for an interview on Tuesday, April 11, 2023. His most recent previous football experience was as associate head coach at the University of Michigan.
Biff Poggi, 62, was named the head football coach of the Charlotte 49ers in November 2022. Poggi sat down for an interview on Tuesday, April 11, 2023. His most recent previous football experience was as associate head coach at the University of Michigan. John D. Simmons / Special to The Charlotte Observer
Quarterback battle?
Jones has received continuous praise from Poggi, the staff, and his teammates, and has taken the first-team reps since spring training. But until a starter is officially named, Charlotte doesn’t have a clear-cut signal-caller with proven success at the FBS level.
Following the outgoing transfers of James Foster and Xavier Williams (UCF), the 49ers added two quarterbacks to join Jones and true freshman Carson Black — Micah Bowens, a redshirt sophomore transfer from Oklahoma, and Dom Shoffner, a former 49er from the Will Healy days.
Bowens was a four-star recruit coming out of Bishop Gorman High School, where he committed to Penn State and served a redshirt season in 2020. The Las Vegas, Nevada, native transferred to Oklahoma in 2021, serving as a reserve quarterback for two seasons behind Heisman winner Caleb Williams and now-South Carolina starter Spencer Rattler.
Bowens has three years of eligibility left and has never played a collegiate snap, while Jones has made stops at five colleges, most recently Bethune-Cookman, where he completed 58.6% of his passes for 2,275 yards, 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions, adding 574 rushing yards and five touchdowns a season ago.
“It’s great to be back with Jalon. He brings a lot of joy to the team and locker room. He has a skill set that is highly unique — an elite athletic skill set,” Poggi said of Jones. “And we’ve got Micha Bowens, who transferred in from Oklahoma, and he’s really good. And we’ve got Dom Shoffner. who has just come on board, and he’s really good. We’re going to use all of the talents and abilities to help us build a successful program.”
The rookie and the vet
A quarterback’s best friend is a great running game, and you can expect the 49ers to lean on their stable of running backs early and often, coached by special teams coordinator and running backs coach Greg Froelich, who is a 247 Sports 30-under-30 nominee.
Returnee Shadrick Byrd is entering his third year with the program and has been a consistent staple in the 49ers’ backfield since his game-winning touchdown against Duke in 2021. Byrd served as the No. 1 back in 2022, rushing for 620 yards and four touchdowns on 4.2 yards per carry.
Insert true freshman Durell Robinson, Charlotte’s first-ever commit during the Under Armour All-America game on ESPN. Robinson is a four-star prospect out of St. Frances Academy and is expected to be a major part of Charlotte’s offense, although the learning curve of collegiate football is in front of him.
“This is the most run schemes I’ve ever seen, but I’m adapting to it well. I’m getting in and out of cuts, and if I see a hole, I’m hitting it 1,000 miles per hour,” Robinson said. “I’m trying to feed my family, and that’s how I see it when I see a hole.”
Charlotte also added Terron Kellman (5-8, 185 pounds, Northern Illinois) and Joachim Bangda (5-10, 230, Towson) this offseason, with the latter signing in late July. Henry Rutledge, another returnee, is also in the mix.
Whether it’s Byrd, Robinson or a combination of all five, expect the 49ers to be a run-heavy offense in Poggi’s effort to bring the Big Ten to Charlotte.
The trenches
Poggi’s brand of football requires winning in the trenches on both sides of the ball, and Charlotte has made a concerted effort to bulk up by adding eight Power Five transfers to the offensive and defensive lines.
Paving the way for Charlotte’s rushing attack will be right tackle Jasper Parks (6-7, 325 pounds, Sioux Falls), Ja’Khi Green (6-6, 290, Maryland), Austin Fontaine (6-4, 290, Maryland), Lucas Gramlick (6-7, 290, UCLA) and Kevin Williams (6-5, 338, Nebraska), with the latter being the first overall pick in the 49ers’ spring game draft. Two starters were retained from last year’s team: Panda Askew and Jonny King.
How associate head coach and offensive line coach Kyle DeVan chooses to slot the group will be determined when the pads are put on, but one thing is for sure — they will have their hands full with the 49ers’ revamped defensive line.
Charlotte’s front four has been a weak spot since the 2019 season when current Pittsburgh Steeler Alex Highsmith concluded his career, but this group has the pieces and raw talent to improve drastically.
Led by Michigan transfer Eyabi Okie-Anoma, the 49ers’ defensive line will feature transfers from Ole Miss, Michigan, Maryland, Indiana, Tennessee and Miami. Four interior linemen return, including Jalar Holley, Miguel Jackson, Dez Morgan and Isaac Washington, who was ineligible last season.
Off the edge is Stone Handy (6-5, 240, Indiana), Julius Welschof (6-6, 265, Michigan), Zion Shockley (6-4, 260, Maryland) and Demon Clowney (6-4, 250, Ole Miss), the cousin of former South Carolina star and 2014 No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft, Jadeveon Clowney.
If this mix of old and new faces can mesh, Charlotte could pose one of the stronger defensive lines in the AAC, taking some of the pressure off of the linebackers and defensive backs.
A Martini fit for a linebacker
Linebacker may very well be Charlotte’s deepest position group, coached by Greer Martini, who spent time as a defensive assistant at both Vanderbilt and LSU and was a recommendation from Tigers’ head coach Brian Kelly — who coached Martini at Notre Dame.
The 49ers return four linebackers with starting experience, including Derek Boykins, Cam Burden, Reid Williford and the 2022 team’s leading tackler, Prince Bemah.
Charlotte has also added four Power Five transfers to its second level, including T.J. Butler (6-4, 220 pounds, Maryland), Nikhai Hill-Green (6-2, 232, Michigan), Demetrius Knight (6-2, 247, Georgia Tech) and the brother of Carolina Panthers tackle Ickey Ekwonu, Ositadinma Ekwonu (6-2, 235, Notre Dame).
Hill-Green is the only addition with consistent starting experience, appearing in all 14 games with six starts in 2021, racking up 50 tackles, two tackles for loss and a pass breakup for the Wolverines.
With an influx of four- and five-star talent and a solid returning core, expect the 49ers’ defense to take a step forward under new defensive coordinator Ryan Osborn.

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