Behind Enemy Lines: 5 Questions with a Wofford beat writer

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, left, and Wofford coach Mike Ayers talk before an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011, at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/ Richard Shiro)

SPARTANBURG – What’s Wofford like? Which adjustments have head coach Mike Ayers made to the triple option and how have the Terriers nipped at the heels of Georgia Tech, South Carolina and Clemson in the past?

Welcome back to another season of Behind Enemy Lines, a title that’s maybe a little meaner than it appears in terms of introducing rival teams’ beat writers. It doesn’t mean the writer is a rival; the team he or she covers is a rival. And their input is most appreciated with two days leading up to Clemson’s next game.

Todd Shanesy of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal is batting leadoff in 2015, taking you through the Terriers’ scouting report. Give Todd a follow on Twitter at the aptly-monikered Terrier Tracker account.

Aaron Brenner, The Post and Courier: First off, Wofford’s certainly been able to succeed at the FCS level, though the Terriers were pretty mediocre in 2013 and 2014. What was the difference the past two years, and what do you expect out of Wofford in 2015?

Todd Shanesy, Spartanburg Herald-Journal: Heading into the 2013 season, Wofford had made the FCS playoffs in five of the past six years. But things just never seemed to click after that, even in some of the wins. The Terriers mostly used two quarterbacks, Evan Jacks and Michael Weimer, and neither seemed to get into rhythm. Wofford’s pass defense had its problems and ranked eighth in the Southern Conference. Those two areas might still be reasons for concern, but the Terriers should be able to finish higher than the fourth-place prediction of the Southern Conference polls. There are 19 returning starters on offense and defense, plus kicker and punter. The schedule is favorable with the likely four toughest opponents (Chattanooga, Western Carolina, Samford and Furman) all at home. Wofford has the ability to finish as high as second, behind Chattanooga, and perhaps make a return to the playoffs.

Brenner: Wofford has lost 15 consecutive games against FBS opponents, but was competitive in 2011 at Clemson (35-27), 2012 at South Carolina (24-7) and last year at Georgia Tech (38-19,) the latter game in which the Terriers were down five in the final ten minutes. How has Wofford been able to play to the high level of an FBS program, particularly early in seasons?

Shanesy: The Terriers’ strategy is to play keep-away. They want to go on extended drives – gambling on fourth downs, if necessary – to limit the number of possessions and keep the opposing offense on the boundary. When it’s worked, there have been games like last year against Georgia Tech. When it hasn’t, there have been games like the 69-3 loss to begin the 2013 season at Baylor. Well, maybe not quite that bad.

Brenner: Although the presumption is the triple option is pretty plain-jane as an alignment, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said Mike Ayers’ offense has tendencies to show different looks or run different formations out of the same look. Could you describe how the Terriers operate, offensively?

Shanesy: Wofford is always adding new wrinkles to the triple option. The Terriers more and more have pulled the quarterback away from under center. Sometimes there are only two running backs and on rare occasions, only one. There have even been experiments with a hurry-up style that seemed to defeat the purpose of the ball-control offense. This preseason, they have tried some straight I-formation. But when it comes right down to it, Wofford is still a triple-option team and success depends on the quarterbacks’ decisions about giving it to the fullback or to ride out to the edges for a keeper or a well-timed pitch.

Brenner: Who’s a player or two in particular, either on offense or defense, that Clemson fans should keep an eye on this Saturday afternoon?

Shanesy: On offense, watch halfback Ray Smith. He is the speed back on the edges, although he went straight up the middle for a 92-yard touchdown against Georgia Tech. Smith, a hometown guy from Dorman High School, averaged 9.0 yards per carry last season. Wofford offensive coordinator Wade Lang called Smith “the best player we have on offense” and is determined to give him the ball more than the 67 carries a year ago. On defense, lineman E.J. Speller is the leader. Drake Michaelson, though, is the only senior on linebacker group that includes five underclassmen on the two-deep chart. He’s going to be counted on heavily, especially because the Terriers lost starter Terrance Morris for the season with a knee injury.

Brenner: What constitutes a successful season opener for the Terriers?

Shanesy: If Wofford can be competitive into the second half and avoid something like what happened against Baylor, it will be a good day for the Terriers. More importantly, if they get out of there without injuries, they’ll take it and move on. Their best season, 12-2 and a trip to the national semifinals, happened after a 49-0 loss at Air Force in the 2003 opener at Air Force.

Follow Todd on Twitter at @TerrierTracker.