The 2009 season was an exceptional one for Wofford football, but not in any way coach Mike Ayers cares to repeat.
The Terriers, who averaged 8.5 wins per season over the previous seven years, slogged through an injury-plagued 3-8 campaign, Wofford's first losing season since 2001 and just its sixth in 22 years under Ayers. Eleven different players suffered season-ending injuries. Only 12 Terriers started all 11 games last season.
No wonder Ayers is eager to turn the calendar page.
"Our mindset is that we are going out to prove that last year was an unusual year for us," said Ayers, who is 144-104-1 at Wofford and won or shared Southern Conference titles in 2003 and 2007. "I don't think you ever put it behind you, but if you are competitive and have won championships and been to the playoffs, it's a tough pill to swallow."
The Terriers return nine starters on offense and nine on defense, and should be bolstered by the return to health of running backs Eric Breitenstein (knee) and Jeremy Marshall (knee), key cogs in the wingbone offense who combined to miss 20 games a year ago.
Breitenstein, a junior fullback, rushed for 187 yards and three touchdowns in Wofford's first two games before he was injured. Marshall, a senior halfback, missed all of last season while recovering from a knee injury suffered in 2008. Despite those injuries and the loss of three other running backs during the season, Wofford led the SoCon with 270 rushing yards per game.
However, that average was down about 70 yards from the 2008 season, and Wofford's turnover margin of -10 was second-worst in the league. That, in turn, kept the Terriers' ball-control offense on the sidelines far too often; Wofford ranked dead last in the SoCon in time of possession.
"It's real simple," said Ayers, whose team was picked to finish sixth in the SoCon this season by league coaches. "If you don't take care of the ball, you basically handcuff yourself. And if you don't tackle well, you handcuff yourself. It's not a matter of whether we have the talent to do it; we just have to get on the same page."
Improving the turnover margin will largely be the task of junior quarterback Mitch Allen, who will start and should get the majority of snaps after sharing time with Stev Davitte a year ago. Allen, 6-0 and 190 pounds, was Wofford's top rusher with 633 yards and six touchdowns last season, and hit 43.6 percent of his passes for 605 yards and seven TDs, with five interceptions.
"Mitch has progressed and has a great deal of experience," Ayers said. "He was frustrated with his performance last year, and that guy is on a mission this season."
Allen's task will be made easier by the return of starters such as senior guards Pat Illig (6-5, 320) and Ben Wilmoth (6-0, 278), senior tackle Clark Bishop (6-2, 288) and senior halfback Mike Rucker, who rushed for 636 yards and six TDs last season. They are just as determined as Ayers to prove that last season was an aberration.
"The fact of the matter is, we only won three games last year," said Illig, a preseason all-SoCon pick from Pittsburgh. "We can say that's not who we are, but that was our record. That's how we did. You want to put it behind you, but it's inspiration for this season.
"It wasn't just one or two things last year, and I put a lot of the blame on myself. One thing we missed last year was a team leader. There were people who stepped up and talked, but that's not always being a leader. I should have been in that role, but I wasn't and that's not going to happen again. I'm going to step up and be the leader this team deserves."
Ayers also expects his defense to step up after Wofford ranked last in the SoCon in scoring defense, allowing 33.5 points per game. Turnovers and injuries certainly contributed to that -- the Terriers lost five defenders to season-ending injury, including lineman Mitch Clark and linebackers Ricco Braxton, Mike Niam and Mark Flott -- but so did poor tackling, according to Ayers.
"We spent 40 to 45 minutes a day in the spring on the fundamentals of tackling," Ayers said. "We went full speed, tackling out in open space, and I feel like we can accomplish what we want to by going full speed, keeping guys off our legs, keeping our heads up and wrapping up."
The Terriers lose only linebacker Gary Blount and safety Mychael Johnson among starters, along with secondary coach Josh Conklin, now defensive coordinator at The Citadel. Safety Tommy Irvin, last year's top tackler, is back along with linebacker Keaton Thompson (10 tackles for loss, four sacks) and end Ameet Pall (four sacks).
The Terriers already have had some injury issues crop up. Fullback Michael Scott is taking a redshirt to deal with kidney issues, and halfbacks Sean Lees (ankle) and Derek Boyce (knee) also will redshirt. But the schedule should help, with Ohio University and Union replacing South Florida and Wisconsin on the non-conference slate.