HUNTINGTON - For the first time in its history, Charlotte's football team is experiencing a head coaching change.
Will Healy takes over at the helm of the 49ers, replacing Brad Lambert, who led the program from its infancy and was surprisingly let go after a year in which Charlotte had its most Conference USA wins in team history, including a season-ending win over Florida Atlantic that kept the Owls from bowl eligibility.
Now, Lambert is at Conference USA foe Marshall as a defensive assistant and Healy is taking over a program that has plenty of upside.
The biggest benefit to Healy is the return of a potent defense that Lambert helped build into one of the top run defenses in all of college football, joining Marshall in the top-10 in FBS in rushing yards allowed per game.
Five of the team's top six tacklers return for the 49ers, who allowed just more than 100 yards per game on the ground.
Safety Ben DeLuca is one of the better players in Conference USA and he's a terrific run-stopper on the back level, which will help the 49ers immensely as they transition with Healy at the helm.
While DeLuca is manning the back-end of the defense, defensive end Alex Highsmith is one of the up-and-coming talents in Conference USA, as well. Highsmith was a nightmare to shut down at the line, finishing with 17.5 tackles for loss in 2018.
Between those players are Jeff Gemmell and Anthony Butler, who lead a linebacking corps that is solid.
The 49ers are strong against the run, but struggled against the pass - much of which was due to the lack of a pass rush, which allowed teams to develop down-field routes against the Charlotte defense.
If Charlotte can find a way to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the defense could be the cornerstone of the team. It is an important element for an offense that is still trying to find its identity, and looks to do so against as Healy takes over.
Charlotte has one of Conference USA's premier backs in Benny LeMay, who rushed for 1,243 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. LeMay is a bruiser who gets the tough yards.
LeMay's consistency falls directly on the strength of the offensive line, however, and jsut two starters - including tackle Cameron Clark - return to the fold, which could pose problems.
The inability to protect the quarterback in the passing game was a 2018 bugaboo that also landed quarterback Chris Reynolds out for the year after an ankle injury.
Reynolds and Evan Shirreffs return to the mix behind center, and both get back a solid target in Victor Tucker.
The bottom line is that while the defense is really good, the offense has to muster a bit more than 22 points per game to see success consistently. That onus falls on the offensive line, which will make or break the season.
On special teams, young kicker Jonathan Cruz proved to be a valuable weapon, and the 49ers will look to utilize him once again. Winning the field position battle is perhaps no more important for a team in Conference USA than the 49ers due to the offensive inconsistencies.
In terms of schedule, the end of September brings a tough stretch that includes a contest at Clemson and the C-USA opener at home against Florida Atlantic. With back-to-back road games at FIU and Western Kentucky following an open date, the 49ers really need a win in the contest against the Owls to springboard them into the bye week.
That game could be the difference in getting over the hump to six wins and staying in the four to five-win range that they've hovered at in recent years.