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ACC big names need run-game spark

Florida State and Virginia broke long droughts between 1,000-yard rushers a season ago, but so far this season both schools have struggled to run the ball consistently.

So has Clemson, in danger of failing to produce a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time in four seasons.

So has Miami even, a program that returned the best back in the ACC in Duke Johnson.

The four schools rank in the bottom half in the nation in rushing, which is somewhat surprising considering the talent they have in the backfield. In the 18 combined games the four starting running backs in the group have played this season, only two resulted in 100-yard performances. Johnson is the only one on pace for a 1,000-yard regular season.

Kevin Parks, the only returning 1,000-yard rusher from a season ago, has 258 total yards this season, and his yards-per-carry average is down from 4.5 to 3.4.

One common theme ties them all together – each program has dealt with inconsistency along its offensive line. Florida State has had a tough time replacing starting center Bryan Stork; the entire right side of the Miami offensive line is new; Virginia has been a revolving door up front; and Clemson has gotten little or no push from its linemen.

In fact, no offensive line is doing less for its team than Clemson, which is averaging just 1.04 yards before contact per rush. Florida State is second in the ACC in highest rate of runs resulting in zero yards or loss, at 24.3 percent; Miami is fourth (20.9 percent).

FSU also has been the worst team in the ACC in rushing between the tackles on non-quarterback runs (3.06 yards per carry). Miami, Clemson and Virginia rank 9-10-11, respectively.

The Canes had their best rushing day of the season last week against Duke, when Johnson had his first 100-yard game and the team had over 200 yards rushing. Johnson said in a phone interview one of the biggest reasons was because Miami changed up some of its blocking schemes and honed in on little details that the veterans on the offensive line a season ago intuitively knew.

“Changes on the offensive line, it kind of hurt just because last year we had two seniors on the right side of the line, so that kind of helped out in case the communication got lost, you had two older guys on the right side who understand everything that’s going on and they’re able to make the check and help out,” Johnson said.

What also hurt Miami was seeing a stacked box early in the season, with true freshman Brad Kaaya starting at quarterback. Virginia also has seen the same, with unproven quarterbacks Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns.

But Virginia also is going with a running back by committee approach, similar to Clemson. Producing a 1,000-yard rusher when going that route becomes more difficult. Still, neither team is getting much production out of any of its backs.

Virginia ranks 11th in the ACC in yards per rush (3.81), while Clemson is 13th (3.53). The Hoos have just 15 runs of 10 or more yards, while Clemson has 11.

“As a running back, you always want to have those home runs, and when you don’t get them, you think back and wonder what’s going on?” said Clemson back C.J. Davidson, who leads the team with 133 yards rushing. “But just by watching film, I know we’re a few steps or a few plays away from having those plays.”

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says he would love one of his backs to step up and emerge “but we’re not quite there yet after four games.”

Virginia has relied on Parks, Taquan Mizzell and Khalek Shepherd -- all three have 35-plus carries. But Parks started off slowly against FBS competition last year, too, before hitting his stride. He reeled off three straight 100-yard games to close the season.

The better news now is that Virginia already has more wins than all of 2013, a trade-off Parks gladly will make.

“We’re winning. Yards will come,” Parks said. “For me, I just try to let the game come to me and see what I get.”