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Finally, Wake Forest has some optimism for its ground game

Need a true measuring stick of just how far Wake Forest's offense has come in three years under Dave Clawson?

There was a moment at last month's ACC Kickoff when a reporter asked a question that, of any other coach, might've seemed mundane: Who was Wake's starting running back?

Clawson didn't offer a firm answer, but that's not the point. What matters is that he rattled off a list of names including incumbent Tyler Bell, freshmen Cade Carney and Rocky Reid and sophomore Matt Colburn. In other words, there were lots of options.

When Clawson took over the team in 2014, he didn't have a single scholarship running back on his roster.

"We've got a number of players we believe in," Clawson said. "And the cream will rise."

It's been a long and largely unpleasant road to get to a point where the Demon Deacons actually have some depth and some talent at running back, but Clawson is hopeful they're finally approaching the light at the end of the tunnel.

In Year 1, with converted receiver Orville Reynolds the veteran of the group, Wake rushed for just 40 yards per game. It was rock bottom.

In Year 2, that started to change, and that's reason enough for enthusiasm.

"When you start seven freshmen [on offense], you're not doing it because you want to do it," Clawson said. "You're doing it out of necessity. But the benefit comes the year after."

From 2014 to 2015, no team had a bigger increase yards-per-rush (not counting sacks) than Wake Forest, which saw a 65 percent improvement. The next four teams on that list -- Washington State, Southern Miss, South Florida and North Carolina -- all improved by at least four wins. The Deacons remained stuck at three.

Wake had the nation's biggest decline in rate of negative runs (not counting sacks), too, going from 34.9 percent in 2014 to 22.8 percent in 2015. Of the 11 teams that improved by at least 21 percent in that category, only two failed to improve their win total: Wake and Purdue.

Taking the quarterbacks out of the mix, Wake's ground game saw the biggest increase in yards before contact per rush of any Power 5 program -- a whopping 67.5 percent improvement over 2014. Washington and North Carolina, the only other Power 5 teams with at least a 60 percent increase, improved by six and five wins, respectively.

So why didn't the improved rushing results also improve Wake's record? The simple answer is that the Deacons were starting from such a low point that even a massive step forward wasn't enough to catch up to the rest of the pack. For example, UNC's change in yards-per-rush (36.1 percent) moved the Tar Heels from 83rd nationally to fourth. Wake's 65 percent improvement bumped it from 128th to 122nd.

But here's where that running back depth comes into play. Yes, Wake saw its yards before contact take a big leap last year (67.5 percent increase), but its yards after contact improvement wasn't nearly so dramatic (13.2 percent). The offensive line went from being historically bad to just reasonably bad (i.e. approximately the same results as Florida and Boston College). The running backs -- mostly freshmen Bell and Colburn -- were still learning the ropes, and the overall improvement wasn't as dramatic.

"What people don't talk about is how we philosophically really changed how we blocked things last year," Clawson said. "Our line was a lot less lateral in terms of our technique with our zone combinations and that helped us. We had a lot less negative yardage plays in the run game. Part of it is, at running back, we've got to have guys make more people miss."

In 2016, however, Bell and Colburn have experience. Reid and Carney have talent. And the offensive line has had another year to get bigger and stronger.

It's hard to say exactly how that will manifest this season, but the recent scrimmages certainly offer hope. And while the big step from 2014 to 2015 wasn't enough to push Wake into competition for a bowl, it does mean the leap from 2015 to 2016 won't be a massive one for the Deacons to go from a bad running team to a respectable one.

"It was an incremental step, and we've got to make that same step this year," Clawson said. "You're not going to go from where we were to 250 yards a game. But that was a big step, and if we can make a similar step this year -- and we should -- we'll be much better."