College Sports

Charlotte 49ers’ top defensive goal this season? Get to the quarterback

49ers’ coach Will Healy on star player Alex Highsmith

Once a walk-on, Alex Highsmith has become a 49ers' star with a possible NFL future.
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Once a walk-on, Alex Highsmith has become a 49ers' star with a possible NFL future.

New Charlotte 49ers coach Will Healy knows what he wants his defense to do this season: rush the passer better than the 49ers did in 2018, when they sacked the quarterback just 19 times.

Healy hired co-defensive coordinators in Brandon Cooper and Marcus West to solve that issue.

Cooper was on Healy’s staff at Austin Peay, where he was defensive coordinator in 2018. He succeeded West in that role with Governors after West left for Minnesota, where he was an assistant coach for one season.

Cooper will also coach Charlotte’s safeties, and West will be in charge of the defensive line.

Cooper and West — who along with Healy are installing a new 4-2-5 defense that will emphasis getting after the passer — talked with the Observer’s David Scott about how the 49ers defense is shaping up ahead of their season opener Aug. 29 against Gardner-Webb:

Q. There’s no doubt what the primary goal of the defense is, right?

Brandon Cooper: “We’re going to rush the passer, and we’ve got guys like [ends] Alex [Highsmith] and Tyriq [Harris] to lead the group. They’re showing guys how to play like a pro. They know how to get after guys and play smart. We’ve got guys like [redshirt freshman] Damon Weldon and [sophomore] Emmanuel White, guys like that who haven’t played a lot of football, who can look at those guys and see how going about their business helps them become better football players.”

Q. How have the defensive backs taken to the new system?

BC: “They’ve responded well. They like the aggressive mentality, the bump and run on the outside. A safety likes being involved in pressures and covering guys. The attack mentality has changed their type of play. They were kind of a bend-don’t-break system last year. This is a more aggressive scheme.”

Q. What has been the main takeaway so far from August practices?

Marcus West: “We’re throwing a lot at them. You won’t carry all this in a game. But it’s fall camp and you’ve got to be able to hold it all. We’re not going to stop. Sometimes they’re not getting it, but we’re going to keep punching it. If we stop, we don’t have a chance.

“We’re not there yet. I’d love to have so much talent and experience that we can just line up and beat people. But we’re not there yet. We’ve got to do the things that give us a chance.”

BC: “We’ve got to keep working on our depth. We want the guys coming in to compete for the starting lineup. Don’t come in stagnant. Our motto is to go out there and find guys who are better than who we’ve got on campus. When you have that kind of competition day in and day it’s going to be a fight to see who’s starting.”

Q. How about the interior line?

BC: “We’re always leaning on the big boys. Tommy Doctor shows up every day; he’s consistent and never nags about anything. Coach West is trying to get Timmy Horne really going. He’s got unbelievable talent and ability. We’re trying to get him at the same pace as the others.

Q. Alex Highsmith is getting a lot of preseason attention. What have you seen from him so far?

MW: No. 5 is special. I’ve coached a lot of good ones, and we’re blessed to have that kid. The way he goes about his work, every single day. He’s a hard-working young man.

Q. Linebacker Jeff Gemmell doesn’t get as much publicity as guys like Highsmith. What does he bring to the team?

MW: “Jeff is a pro. It’s the way he goes about his business every day. He’s a great teammate, mature, and you can have a conversation with him about football or life. He’s our quarterback on defense. They have a quarterback battle on offense, but we don’t have one on defense. We know who our quarterback is: It’s [Gemmell]. He’s our guy.”

Q. What’s been your impression of safety Marquill Osborne, who transferred from Tennessee?

MW: “Yes, he is a Power 5 talent. You can see it. He took a different approach to this camp. It’s a pleasure to coach him every day. With him and [Nafees] Lyon, I like where we are at the corners.”

Q. Who has been the biggest surprise in the preseason?

MW: “[Defensive back Marquavis] Gibbs has done an unbelievable job of fighting through some things this camp. He continues to get reps. He’s been the most improved person in this camp. He’s been a highlight on the back end for us.”

David Scott: @davidscott14