The Charlotte 49ers have come a long way from the not-so-special teams that cost them repeatedly over the past two seasons.
Coach Will Healy called the 2021 team the best he’s coached at Charlotte, and the increased depth is being highlighted on special teams.
“We’ve got to make big strides on special teams,” Healy told The Observer ahead of the season. “I think we’re doing it.”
The Charlotte 49ers are a dangerous football team when they execute in all three phases, but seldom have we seen the trio completed for a full 60 minutes. The offense has been dynamic on the arm of Chris Reynolds and a star-studded receiving corps, but the defense has been gashed for career days on multiple occasions.
The special teams have done their job, which is to not lose the 49ers games. Most recently, they’ve even positioned Charlotte to win. In fact, Shadrick Byrd earned Conference USA Special Teams Player of the Week honors following the Week 6 victory over Florida International.
Byrd averaged over 59 yards per kick return, flipping the field twice for the 49ers. While Charlotte is yet to score a special teams touchdown this season, there has been clear improvement under first-year special teams coordinator Tyler Hancock.
Hancock is the 49ers’ third special teams coordinator in as many seasons, filling the role following Charles Bankins’ departure to Memphis.
Here is a midseason review of the 49ers’ special teams:
KICKING & PUNTING
Senior kicker Jonathan Cruz hasn’t been called on often this season as the 49ers’ offense has been efficient in the red zone, scoring on 82% of their attempts. Cruz has connected on three of his five attempts, with his longest coming from 42 yards against Florida International.
He had a kick blocked against Middle Tennessee and missed a crucial 29-yard attempt that would have tied the game against Illinois late in the third quarter. Healy has stated that he feels comfortable kicking a field goal as soon as the offense crosses the opposing 35-yard line.
Cruz has connected on every extra point this season, making a school record 61 straight dating back to 2019. He also handles kickoffs, where he’s booted 27 touchbacks and allowed only four returns this season. The 49ers rank 96th in the FBS in kickoff coverage, allowing 23 yards per return.
Punter Bailey Rice joined the team this season following a four-year career in the Australian Football League. Rice averages 41.22 yards per punt, which ranks 69th in the nation. His longest punt of the season was 56 yards against Middle Tennessee.
When Rice booms the ball, the 49ers are wasting no time making the tackle. Charlotte is leading the nation in punt return defense and hasn’t allowed a single yard this season to a punt returner.
Whether it’s the Aussie-style roll-out punt, an improved group of blockers and gunners, or both, the 49ers aren’t giving up field position in the punting game. Healy stated that he would play the best 11 players on their “Pride Unit,” and knowing what Grant DuBose can do catching the ball, he may be equally as good as a gunner.
While ranking in the top of the nation in yards allowed on punt returns is key, that’s not the most important punting stat for the 49ers. Charlotte hasn’t allowed a single blocked punt this season, which shows massive strides from the woes that plagued them since Healy took charge in 2019. Last year against Duke, there were two disastrous special teams flubs.
The 49ers have only three punt returns for a total of 15 yards on the season. We’ve seen Geovante Howard, Victor Tucker and Cameron Dollar returning kicks this season, but there has been minimal room to run following the catch.
There have been a couple of questionable return decisions, but no muffed punts to this point. Dollar has the awareness and ball-security skills of a good returner, but expect to see Tucker in that role in late-game situations. Tucker’s explosiveness and quick first step open the door for the big play.
The running back duo of Calvin Camp and Byrd serves as the 49ers’ kick returners, with Byrd ranking 12th in the nation in yards per return at 28.5. As a team, the 49ers rank 21st in the nation and second in C-USA in kick returns with an average of 27.13 yards per return.
Charlotte’s last kick return for a touchdown came in the 2020 season opener as Aaron McAllister went 97 yards for the score against Appalachian State. The 49ers are yet to find the end zone on special teams this season.
GRADING CHARLOTTE’S SPECIAL TEAMS
Special Teams: B+. Charlotte isn’t hurting itself on special teams this season and that alone earns a B. The plus comes from Byrd’s explosiveness and the job that Hancock is doing schematically.
Kicking & Punting: B. With Rice joining the team, Charlotte is ranking atop the nation in punting and hasn’t allowed a single punt to be blocked. Cruz will continue to be a reliable option on field goals.
Return Game: B. There have only been 18 total returns all season for the 49ers, but kick returns have been much improved as of late. Oftentimes, it’s not worth the risk of injury, a fumble or a flag on the kick return, so it’s easy to just let the ball go through the end zone for a touchback. But with Byrd in the return game, it’s been worth the risk.