|PICTURES | SAM ROBERTS|
|Charlotte 49ers linebacker Tyler Murray returns as the defense leader in tackles (49) and interceptions (two) of the 2020 season.|
Charlotte 49ers football continues its quest for 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 arrived, and as the 49ers had some semblance of season (2-4, 2-2 C-USA) in 2020, the momentum was short-lived. Healy recalled the game schedule for 12 games last season, nine of which were called off.
“There were times last year where it kind of surprised us when we were able to play a game and I don’t know if I did a great job mentally preparing our guys to play a game on Saturday, because that I was so busy telling them everything that happened during the week, especially when you get to the second or third canceled game, it’s like these guys need to know every rumor, every situation was going on, every positive test, every contact trace,” Healy said. “I’ve filled their minds with it all so much that I don’t know if I’ve done a great job of getting them ready to go and play in a game. . Going 2-4 and having nine games canceled is not a great student-athlete experience. Not even close.
Charlotte’s season kicks off Sept. 3 against Duke, marking the first time the 49ers will host an ACC opponent, Power Five. 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 slated 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 the opportunity to do that last year and Duke blew us away,” Healy said. “We are delighted to welcome Duke to our home. A Power Five football game. It’s awesome. If you’re not playing well, they’re just doing you a favor by coming here.
Healy raised expectations for 49ers football when athletic director Mike Hill hired him in 2018. The challenge becomes a lasting improvement as Healy enters his third season in Charlotte, picked to finish fourth in the East Division of C -USA.
“It’s great to talk about winning conference championships,” Healy said. “We actually have to compete and win a conference championship for this to become a reality for everyone. 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 so. It’s a bit like creating rivalries. It would be great to have a million different rivalries. We have to beat some people for it to be a rivalry.
Healy said he believed they had the leadership to do so. It starts with players like senior wide receiver Victor Tucker and senior linebacker Tyler Murray. Tucker has been a force since before Healy arrived. He led Charlotte in receiving yards last season, with 400 on 30 receptions and two touchdowns, and he’s led the team in receiving yards since 2018.
“For me, I anticipate this will be 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 hopefully reinventing 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 was transferred to Charlotte from Troy last year. He had an instant impact, leading the 49ers with 49 tackles and two interceptions.
“We look a lot better than last year before training camp,” Murray said. “I see a big difference with a lot of leadership, a lot of young guys stepping in in big roles.”