4. WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE CHARLOTTE DEFENSE
– There’s a whole lot to like about the 49er defense. Seven starters and five of the top six tacklers are back from a group that finished third overall in Conference USA and was a rock against the run, allowing just 106 yards per game.
– It starts with the return of a good line, with ends Alex Highsmith and Tyriq Harris coming off all-star seasons. There wasn’t enough of a pass rush, but that should change – these two need to combine for more than 5.5 sacks, but Highsmith can get behind the line with 17.5 tackles for loss. 311-pound Timmy Horne is a good-sized presence in the interior, and there’s a good rotation around him.
– If Ben DeLuca isn’t the best safety in Conference USA, he’s not far off. The veteran led the team with 92 stops, and he’s not alone with corners Nafees Lyon and DJ Anderson back. This group can hit, but they all need to come up with more big plays when the ball is in the air.
– The linebacking combination of Jeff Gemmell and Anthony Butler combined for 140 tackles. Gemmell is the big body on the inside, and Butler is for the outside. There’s good size across the board, and this group will be solid against the run, but the outside linebackers have to start hitting the quarterback.