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Wofford doesn't think small

Eric Breitenstein 

Wofford's Eric Breitenstein has rushed for 4,588 yards and 55 touchdowns in his career under the watchful eye of coach Mike Ayers.

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It's hard not to be impressed with some of the numbers associated with Wofford's football team.

Fullback Eric Breitenstein is the active career rushing leader in the FCS, running wild in the Terriers' triple option, which leads the nation in rushing yards per game for a third straight season.

Wofford also focuses on stopping the run as its defense ranks fifth nationally in rushing defense.

And then you see the size of Wofford's enrollment, which makes you do a double take: it's just over 1,500 students.

Wofford not only has the smallest enrollment in the Southern Conference, but the second-smallest among all 122 schools in the FCS (to Presbyterian).

Yet Wofford is ranked No. 5 nationally, always seems to be in the mix for the SoCon championship and leads this year's race as the Terriers prepare for a daunting second half of the schedule, including games at Georgia Southern on Saturday and against Appalachian State at home on Oct. 20.

So how does such this small private college in Spartanburg, S.C., thrive among the best teams in the nation?

Commitment.

Head coach Mike Ayers, now in his 25th season at Wofford, and his coaching staff have committed to recruiting a little differently and running a triple option on offense that is considerably different from what most teams run.

"I think it starts from 25 years ago when we got here," said Ayers, whose team is 5-0 overall and 3-0 in the SoCon.

"We knew that for us, with our size school and where we were from a program standpoint that we were not going to be able to recruit some of the better talent. That's not to say that we don't have good players now. But we felt that for us philosophically, to give us a chance, that we couldn't be like everybody else."

The Terriers committed to running the ball and stopping it, and haven't deviated from an option style to the current triple option that works so well - Georgia Southern, The Citadel and Cal Poly run it - that perhaps it should be embraced by more coaches nationally.

Ayers was an assistant coach at Wofford from 1980-82. He returned to the program in 1988 after guiding East Tennessee State, restored the option (from the I formation) with the Terriers and transformed a 1-10 team from the year before to a 5-5 club in his first season. And the Terriers haven't looked back ever since, posting winning records in 17 of the last 23 seasons, including eight of the last nine, while Ayers helped take them from the NAIA level to Division II to Division I.

"We were an option offense," the 64-year-old Ayers said. "We were fortunate enough to hit on a couple guys and we worked hard. We brought in guys that we felt like would be willing to grind the grind, guys that a lot of people overlooked. But you put 'em in the weight room, you work 'em hard, you give 'em something that they're capable of doing, and you have some success as the years have gone by, moving from NAIA to Division II to Division I and getting into the Southern Conference, the more success we had, the better players we were able to recruit.

"We would recruit one or two guys that a lot of people wanted and then the majority were guys that we felt like just fit our system. We didn't care whether anybody liked them besides us or not, we just felt like that they fit into our system. And then we continued and the more success, more guys we were able to recruit, (the more) that were upper-echelon guys."

Ayers has had his share of help in creating stability while Wofford recruits against schools as big as Georgia Southern (over 20,000 students) and Appalachian State (over 17,000). Wade Lang has been on staff for all 25 years, including the last 23 as offensive coordinator. Nate Woody is in his 22nd year at Wofford, including the last 12 as defensive coordinator.

Wofford tends to fill recruiting classes with players who are a little smaller than those going to other schools. It works into the Terriers' philosophies, however, as, say, undersized offensive linemen can utilize their speed in running the triple option.

Breitenstein, at 5-foot-11, 230 pounds, doesn't have the traditional size of a fullback, but those schools who overlooked him now know he could fit in everywhere. The fifth-year senior and Walter Payton Award candidate leads all active FCS players with 4,588 rushing yards and 55 touchdowns in his career.

Junior Alvin Scioneaux thrives as an undersized linebacker - 6-2, 215 - just as former defensive end Ameet Pall (6-0, 245) did after the Terriers plucked him out of a Canadian high school. He went on to tie for second place in the 2010 Buck Buchanan Award voting.

"I think every school has to recruit to the strengths of their university, to the strength of their college," Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken said. "You look at teams all over the country ... Look at the ACC and you've got state schools like Florida State and Clemson, which have 30,000, and then you've got Duke and they have 4,000 students. It's the same at Stanford and Notre Dame and places like that who have success. The size of the school, I don't think, is the telling factor on who you can recruit.

"I'm sure Mike recruits a lot of the guys that Furman and Samford and Elon and other schools like his (recruit). They're similar, they're similar in their size, they're similar in terms of their academic requirements, their academic programs. And each one of them has things that are unique about it and make it special for them."

That Ayers, who has a 167-111-1 record at Wofford, keeps bringing in talented players makes the program even more special. The college's higher academic standards tend to provide the Terriers with smart players. Plus as the talent base has improved, they have been able to redshirt freshmen and build up to having more fifth-year seniors.

The offense and defense seem to complement each other well, as their plus-6 turnover-over margin suggests this season. The Terriers have a new quarterback in junior Brian Kass, who benefits from an outstanding line. They are running the triple option a little differently, more out of the shotgun with less pitching of the ball.

Defensively, it's a mix of veteran players and youth, although injuries to senior linebacker Mike Niam and now across the D-line are hurting the unit. Junior linebacker Mike McCrimon leads the team in tackles and junior safety James Zotto is a force in the secondary.

"The obstacles are still the same," Ayers said. "As we get better players, so does everybody else. It's coming up with a system that continues to work. A lot of folks, when we were running three-back option football, a lot of people said, well, you can't do it now, you gotta do this, you gotta do that, you gotta throw it here, you gotta throw it there. What we've done is tried to get better. For us, our mind-set every year is to find better ways to do better things. It's not necessarily reinventing the wheel, but just trying to make the wheel just a little bit better."