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McNair hopes to lead Wofford to playoffs

SPARTANBURG, S.C.? Wofford's J.R. McNair, Bible open and Terriers jersey on, remembered the sting that sunny, fall morning when he and his teammates learned their season was over.

Wofford had just completed its best Southern Conference season ever at 9-3 and seemed a lock for a landmark trip to the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs. Instead, coach Mike Ayers faced the group in a meeting room. They were passed over, he said, and left out by the NCAA playoff committee.

Angry and hurt, McNair grieved for the seniors who wouldn't get another chance at the playoffs. Then he told his returning teammates, citing Luke's Gospel, to keep their heads up and look forward.

McNair graduated from Mt. Zion High School in 2000 and played on the Bulldogs team that went 14-1 and made it all the way to the Class AAA state championship before falling to Oconee County.

McNair gained 1,691 yards that season and scored 17 touchdowns. His 1,691 rushing yards ranks fourth on the all-time list in Clayton County.

McNair was also a state champion in wrestling at Mt. Zion.

McNair, a fullback who regularly reads from his Bible between practices and classes, says there is a passage from Luke "that says if you're on the plow and you look back, you're not worthy of the reward."

"That's what we're doing," McNair said. "We're not looking back. We're continuing to go. And that's perfect."

At the time, Wofford coach Mike Ayers thought his team was snubbed from a hard-earned, rightful playoff spot. The Terriers had won road games at Georgia Southern and Appalachian State in the same season, something few teams ever do.

"I just wish we had a little bit better understanding of where we fell short," Ayers said then.

Now, with some offseason fishing under his black belt ? he is skilled in the martial arts ? Ayers wants the Terriers to follow McNair's lead and focus on the future.

Soon after the smoke cleared last November, Ayers set out on removing all doubt about Wofford's worthiness. He and his coaches began planning more intensely, teaching more diligently and training more urgently with those returning. The results, Ayers hopes, will be evident on the field this fall.

Otherwise, Ayers has taken the long view on his team's disappointing end last year.

After all, Wofford has an enrollment of about 1,200, making it the second-smallest school in Division I behind Centenary's 850 students. The Terriers have played Division I-AA football for only nine years. They've been in the powerful Southern Conference since 1997 and have climbed up the league standings despite having 15 fewer scholarships than the NCAA allows.

"Even though it didn't work out for us for the playoffs, we accomplished a great deal" last season, Ayers said.

"We did things that nobody thought that we could and we made other people who may have sold us short believe in us," he said.

Is the next ? and biggest ? step the Southern Conference title?

Ayers hopes so, but only if his team works hard and answers several questions. The Terriers lost their top two rushers from 2002 in Jesse McCoy and Melvin Jones, who combined for 1,709 yards and 17 touchdowns.

The defense will have to replace all four linebackers from a year ago.

McNair, also the student body president, will take up much of the offensive slack in the backfield.