For historically bad Wake Forest offense, nowhere to go but up

Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford spent most of last season running for his life behind a bad offensive line. Things will have to change this season for the Deacs to be more competitive.

It’s a good thing Dave Clawson, entering his second year season at Wake Forest, is an expert at rebuilding jobs. Because this one is going to be long and difficult.

Clawson knew that going in, but even he probably couldn’t know just how bad things would get for the Demon Deacons, especially on offense. Mostly on offense, in fact, where an overmatched offensive line often failed to generate anything remotely resembling a ground game or adequate pass protection.

Wake Forest didn’t finish last in the country in rushing yards per game — at 39.92, they just did edge out Washington State (39.83) — but the 1.25 per rushing attempt was the worst by a significant margin (Washington State averaged 1.97). In fact, that 1.25 was the lowest by any FBS team since 2008. It was just the fourth time in that same span that an FBS team finished with fewer than 2.0 yards per rush.

Wake finished with a 3-9 record and competed hard in spite of its anemic offense, keeping all but one of its final five games close and even getting a win over Virginia Tech in there as well, their only win over a Power 5 opponent.

But it was clear that the Deacs were outmatched, more often than not.

"I thought our kids competed hard last year, and that was important, but I also think there was a significant gap in a lot of areas between us and the rest of the ACC," Clawson said. "We’ve got to close that gap and we’ve got to do it in a number of ways. We’ve got to close the gap in recruiting. We’ve got to go a great job at Wake Forest recruiting players.

"I thought on both sides of the line of scrimmage last year we were out-manned and overwhelmed at times. When you don’t hold up up front, it doesn’t even get to the perimeter matchup. Clearly we have to make a lot of progress on our offensive line and our defensive front, and I believe we’re doing that. I think we’ve done that through recruiting and our kids are getting stronger and to me look more like ACC football players now than they did a year ago."

Clawson has been busy with his young team in the weight room, of course, and on the recruiting trail. The hard work seemed to pay off some in the Wake Forest spring game.

To say that John Wolford was thrown into the fire at quarterback last year as a true freshman feels like an understatement. He was often spending more time running for his life than he was going through progressions and learning to play the position. Wake Forest allowed 48 sacks last year, most by any FBS team.

He somehow never wilted under the constant barrage of opposing defenders in his face and the utter futility that was trying to get the ball down the field against good opponents. He showed toughness and poise against all odds, and that gives Wake Forest something to build on. But it won’t matter if his line doesn’t improve.

"The biggest jump was on the offensive line. As we left spring football, we have three redshirt freshman starting on our o-line. That’s certainly never ideal, but I think these guys are going to be good young players, and in our top 10, probably five or six of them are freshmen," Clawson said. "Again, these guys will learn and develop, and we’ll have a good offensive line in the near future."

In Wake Forest’s spring game on April 11, Wolford was captain of one of the teams and got to pick his teammates. He chose four of the five starting offensive linemen based on the spring depth chart, and that paid off as he completed 21-of-33 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns.

Wolford did improve throughout the year in spite of his line still not really giving him much time; he completed 42-of-68 passes for 401 yards in Wake’s final two games against Virginia Tech and Duke, throwing three touchdowns to just one interception. His 152.73 passer rating in the season finale against Duke was his highest all season.

So there’s reason to think that he, along with the majority of his weapons in the passing game that return this year, will be better this year. But if his line can’t protect him and if Wake can’t run the ball at all, it might not matter.

It’s bound to improve some over last year, just because it almost can’t get worse. Wake finished with negative rushing yards in three games last season (two of which weren’t even against Power 5 opponents) and passed the 100-yard mark only once (exactly 100 yards in a win over Army). Wake totaling 196 yards on the ground in its final three games doesn’t seem like much, but the Deacs had 115 yards in the five previous games combined. So it’s something.

That’s the type of progress that Wake Forest and Clawson are looking for at this point. He won’t be able to fix Wake’s woeful rushing attack in one spring, or one off-season — but it’s bound to improve somewhat.

"Well, we got better at (running the ball). I still don’t think it’s where it needs to be, but we’re definitely improved. I mean, we ran the ball better this spring than we did the spring before," Clawson said. "Part of that is I think our offensive line is more talented. … But part of it is we’re going to continue to get better, and that’s going to come from recruiting.

"We’re not going to go from one of the worst teams in the country to one of the best in one year, but I’d be very disappointed if we don’t make a significant gain this year in how well we run the football. Again, I saw progress in the spring, but we’ve still got a ways to go."