Craig Has The Scout - Charlotte 2021
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Who: Charlotte 49ers
When: 11:00 am - October 2nd, 2021
Where: Home Sweet Home
Head Coach: Will Healy. What a young and charismatic Jerry Kill would look like (read, can recruit at a high level). Healy played quarterback at Richmond for Dave Clawson and after his playing days ended, moved to Chattanooga with his college DC. Healy's main task as a young assistant was primarily recruiting, and his reputation for understanding offense and recruiting ended up in the head job at Austin Peay. Austin Peay had lost 16 games in a row and had one win in the 35 games prior to his arrival. He raised the profile of Austin Peay enough they hired Mark Hudspeth as his replacement and won a conference title four years after he was hired. He replaced Purdue DC Brad Lambert as head coach and took Charlotte to its first bowl his first year. Healy has a great deal in common with Mike Locksley's approach to roster building but has extensive roots in the mid-Atlantic that have helped propel his teams.
Offensive Style: RPO-based offense with a heavy QB run element, and multiple reads every play. Taking after the triple option, the offense attacks the interior of the defense often. They mix in zone, power, and counter blocking elements into the offense and try to take what the defense will give them. If the inside game is working, this offense is almost impossible to stop. When it is not, the quarterback is solid but unspectacular and prone to incompletions.
Defensive Style: 4-2-5 with a high % of Man Coverage. Charlotte struggles to stop the run and will sell out with man coverage on the edge to free the safeties in the run game. The corners are susceptible to being beat deep, but the aggression also helps in forcing turnovers. The defense is top 25 in FBS at stopping opposing drives, but one of the worst at preventing explosive drives. They are giving up 2.4 pts./opponent drives on the season.
Specialists: Charlotte has one of the best punt teams in the country, allowing (-1) return yards on the season. That is the fifth-best average in the nation.
Three Things to Watch
Victor Tucker touches. Charlotte must get the ball into the hands of its best player, plain and simple. They will mix in quick outs, tunnel screens and jet sweeps to get Tucker involved. If Tucker is getting the ball, the offense is working for the 49ers.
Charlotte turnovers. The 49ers are 3-8 on the road under Healy. Every loss involved a Charlotte turnover.
Brandon Peters time in the pocket. If Peters has time, the Illini can pick apart the underneath zones or take shots over the top. If the passing game doesn't have to force anything, the Illini receivers should be able to find space and break big plays.
Scouting Review - Offense
The offensive play-caller for Charlotte is Mark Carney. Carney has familiarity with Healy, he was the quarterbacks coach when Healy was QB at Richmond. Carney was QB for Dave Clawson at Fordham and his first successful QB. He moved with Clawson to Richmond, then Bowling Green. He split with Clawson when Clawson took over at Wake Forest. Carney reunited with Healy in 2019.
Carney replaced Alex Atkins, who left to be the OL coach at Florida State. Carney is not quite the recruiter Atkins was during his time in Charlotte, so the 49ers loaded up on transfers in the offseason (12 last season). The offense is fun, and as a result, the 49ers are a destination for Power 5 transfers (including Shadrick Byrd from Iowa). Get prepared for pre-snap motion all day.
The offense at Charlotte is 46th in yards per play this year and is 50th nationally in explosive plays. The offense is averaging 2.29 yards per drive. The downside is that 27% of the plays, they allow defenses to hold them to <2 yards. Georgia State shut down the rushing game and forced Charlotte to pass. When Charlotte becomes one-dimensional, the offense becomes pedestrian.
The run game all starts with the inside run game. The run game has bolted on passing concepts to freeze the secondary and allows the offense to break big plays. The primary play is a straight inside zone run.
The QB is reading the corner on the play. He freezes, so Reynolds gives on the play. The play also features a common denominator in the offense, motion early and often. The run game has bolted on passing concepts as well. The first is a bubble off the read.
The H back motioned away from the line on this play and was the lead block for the bubble. They also run the standard bubble action on the RPO.
The read here is the Nickel, and as the Nickel squeezed, Reynolds throws the bubble. Illinois has walked up safeties against similar looks this season.
The explosive element is the slants Minnesota used to devastating effect against Lovie's defenses. If Illinois walks up safeties, this is the look they will employ.
The read on this play is the field safety. Once the safety walks up on the play, the read is the slant route. The corners were in press coverage, but gave up inside leverage and allowed the big play. They will mix up the look, and use motion to suck up the safeties. In this instance, the Z-motion pulls the safety up and opens the same route.
Again, press coverage and the corner loses inside leverage.
The 49ers will also mix in a healthy amount of split zone as well with the H-back wham blocks.
The H back motioned from the slot on this play. They'll run it again with the H-back in the backfield as well. This is one of the few split zone runs I saw without a passing element attached. Reynolds is another mobile QB for the Illini to account for and will keep when he sees the opportunity.
They will run the same play utilizing motion as well.
I can't tell if he is reading the DE or the OLB on this. MTSU read this play well, you can see the LB react prior to the snap.
The plays have passing concepts attached as well. The first is the bubble routes. They also run quick-hitting routes like hitches.
The DE crashes hard here, and Reynolds performs well under fire.
The inside zone is matched with the outside run game as well. The primary look on the outside zone is here.
Reynolds made a quick read on the DE in this case. Charlotte moved to this against MTSU because the Blue Raiders were controlling the line of scrimmage. The play is paired as a split zone option as well with the Wham block.
The RB is looking to bend this back up the middle but bounced the play once the gaps were plugged by the MTSU defense. There are passing concepts attached, on the above they had the quick hitch option again. The bubble is also used in the routes.
The bubble routes are attached in this instance. If they run the bubble, at least once they will leak the lead blocker.
The lead blocker leaked on a slant for a big gain in this instance. The CB looks like he was expecting help from a safety who has responsibility for the bubble. Communication is key.
As mentioned before, they will also use the power run concepts while utilizing the read options. First up is a Power run concept with the standard FB block taken by the play side H-back.
The read is apparently the corner on this play. The motion bumped the safeties over and the over-aggressive LB play opened up a big hole. The bumped safety ends up missing the tackle. Here is the same play, where the read is the play-side LB.
I've seen Reynolds pull this, but the result would have been the same as the HB bounce. They will pull the HB across the formation in the Power action as well. They will do it with and without Z-motion
The Z-motion here keeps the DE wide and pulls the safety wide. That opens the hole the back hits.
Another play they use is what I would classify as a Power run, but could also be classified as a counter.
In addition to that, they will run the standard counter as well.
The read is the weak-side LB. The Appalachian State defense made this one easy on Charlotte.
The motions enable multiple run concepts for the 49ers. The H-back will line up all over the field and will require the Illini to keep track of him. The tight end / H-back Taylor Thompson is one to watch. He is used extensively as a lead blocker in the run game, and when they pass they throw away from him.
Victor Tucker is going to be key to the offensive success of the 49ers. Jet sweeps are something they may enable, but they will most like utilize tunnel screens and intermediate passing routes. Here is the tunnel screen.
Middle Tennessee State was very aggressive and ran a lot of man coverage. The tunnel screen is an effective way to take out aggressive corners. Tucker is the most electric playmaker for the 49ers but struggles against press coverage. This is an effective way to free him.
Charlotte prefers to run the ball, and the passing attack they used against MTSU was basic. Against Illinois, the passing attack should be short hits with attacks against open zones. There will be a couple of deep shots, but the RPOs will be the method of generating explosive passing attacks. The passing attack will try to avoid standard deep routes, the OL is not great in protection. Here is a standard passing concept.
The concept on top is an out, tagged along with an out and up. Reynolds didn't even wait to see if the deep route developed. They will also use the slots and TEs to hold the middle zone defenders as well to open the outs.
If the LB falls back with the slot defender, they clear the TE on the crossing route. The passing attack will be quick game for Charlotte against the Illini.
Charlotte plays at a snail's pace. The Illini actually have a much faster pace of play. The 49ers offense is built around the talent and players available. The real trick of the offense is to find the talent mismatches and to exploit it as often as possible. The 49ers will show run to the A-gaps in the run to freeze the middle of the defense, then attack the edges. The play-calling rhythm reminds me of Ciarroca's time at Minnesota with Tanner Morgan running the RPO game in 2019. The Illini defense needs to control the middle and eliminate the core of the run game. After that, the 49er offense is less effective and allows the Illini secondary to lock down the RPO game.
Scouting Review - Defense
What to do when your defense allows 6.55 yards/play? You go fishing into the transfer portal to buttress your defensive talent. The 49ers went shopping to for Power 5 transfers and offered depth and playing time. The results so far haven't been promising. They are now allowing 6.61 yards/play.
The 49er defense has been pretty effective at creating havoc this year. On 26% of their plays they are getting credit for a disruptive play. The downside is they are allowing explosive drives at a rate 127th in the nation. Illinois is one of the least explosive offenses in the nation, so that presents opportunities for the 49ers. The main issue for Charlotte is that the Illini are 56th in rushing efficiency, while the 49ers are 119th in rush defense efficiency.
The 49er defense has co-DCs, Marcus West and Brandon Cooper. Cooper and West coached with Healy at Chattanooga, and Cooper was his DC at Austin Peay. The philosophy is to play sound defense and force teams to string together drives. The defensive havoc has them 23rd nationally in opposing drive efficiency. The inability to prevent explosive plays is sinking the defense.
Charlotte likes to have their corners play man coverage (often press-man), while the safeties run Cover 2 and the linebackers playing zone three across. The Blue Raiders took advantage with big shots all game by playing up the quick game. Here is one example.
The corner sells out on the bubble, the sideline route pulls the safety and left the receiver wide open. As the OC at Appalachian State last year, Tony Petersen put in max protection to attack the defense.
This is a Hi-Lo concept. Petersen paired a seam route paired with a deep out. The out is most likely an option route, but the deep out clears the underneath coverage and puts the safety in conflict.
For standard run downs, the 49ers have been aggressively attacking the edges to create havoc plays. The Nickel is aggressively attacking the box on inside runs.
The Nickel chases this down from behind. I was unsure originally if this was a blitz.
Here is the same look. The motion is triggering the nickel to attack the run. It is an effective way to neutralize a jet sweep too. Last year, Petersen neutralized the blitz by showing the motion to the near side and running to the perimeter opposite.
The outside zone play gave the gap for the back, while the orbit motion slowed the nickel blitz. Petersen was effective at slowing this down. MTSU never tried, they were committed to the passing attack. Petersen's game plan last year should be similar to this year. Petersen ran double TEs with twins to the wide side of the field. Petersen ran the zone blocking to the near side, and ran hi-lo combination routes to open up the sidelines.
Charlotte will mix in some unique blitzes. My favorite is a standard 4-man rush, but they take the DE and move him to the ILB position.
The blitzing LB on the play is actually the starting DE. They sugared the LB by walking him up to the LOS.
The Charlotte defense has a lot in common with the Tim Banks defense. The DE will occasionally drop into coverage while they blitz a LB.
The near-side end of line player is the DE, and he is the hook defender in this play. They also mix in zone blitzes, which is rare for college teams.
The DL of Charlotte struggles to stop the run, and the blitzes are designed to generate the havoc plays. Primarily, the defense runs a base set with little variation. If the 49er defense is going to sell out to stop the run, which should have the corners in man-to-man coverage on the perimeter. The Illini offense will have chances to take deep shots, but may not have the capability to execute the plays. A defense that has very little variation, that has the Lovie Smith seal of approval.
What does it mean?
Illinois wants to establish a run game and grind out drives. Charlotte has struggled to stop the run all year and the defensive propensity to generate havoc allows opponents to break big runs. Middle Tennessee State decided to pass anyway. The 49ers defense struggled to stop the pass against the Blue Raiders. Illinois will score on the ground.
Defensively, Illinois needs to prevent the gash plays that occur with the RPO action Charlotte generates. The most effective way is to defang the rushing attack and run inside leverage on the RPOs. The most dangerous aspect of the Charlotte offense is Reynolds running the ball.
For Illinois to Win:
Charlotte struggles to stop the run, allowing almost six yards per carry, and allowing over 300 yards rushing against Duke. Illinois has the best run game Charlotte has faced. The Illini are averaging 4.0 ypc, and have a chance to unleash the run game. They need to establish the run game early and stay ahead of the sticks. The Illini need to pass on their terms and avoid the passing downs.
If Illinois gets up early, they will move to a big but don't break defense again and force Charlotte to string together drives. Charlotte needs to be explosive to win, and if Illinois can prevent the big plays, they will force turnovers and run away from the 49ers.
For Charlotte to Win:
Charlotte has to break big plays early, then slow the game to force the Illini to take chances down the field. They need to establish the interior run game to open up the RPOs. The QB needs to hit on the RPOs as they open up. Charlotte cannot afford turnovers.
Defensively, they need to shut down the Illini power run game. Illinois will try to bully the 49ers front. Charlotte needs to find a way to get Illinois behind the sticks and force the Illini to pass. With the ongoing issues Illinois has had on the intermediate passing routes, Charlotte needs to find a way to put pressure in the face of the QB.
I said it to Robert in a podcast earlier this year, but just to reiterate. I feel this team has real 2006 Illini vibes. By and large, they have been competitive in most games, and have a record that doesn't reflect the effort on the field. I took the under on wins for the year (3.5). In this comp, Charlotte is the Eastern Illinois of the schedule. Illinois has stayed even or positive on turnovers all year, and it will take a reversal of fortunes to change that. Additionally, the Illini strength has been the run game, which is Charlotte's weakness. Illinois covers.
YTD Against the Spread: