Wake Forest is ready for two years' worth of growing pains to start paying off.
The Demon Deacons begin Dave Clawson's third season Thursday night when they play host to a Tulane team debuting under new coach Willie Fritz.
Wake Forest has finished 3-9 twice as part of Clawson's patient rebuild of the program, and last year's Demon Deacons were one of the nation's youngest teams.
Now they're a year older, with nine offensive starters returning, and they're ready for the progress they made to show up in their record.
''This is the most talented group up front that we've had. This is the most cohesive group up front that we've had since I have been here,'' offensive lineman Tyler Hayworth said. ''We are a unit that has to work together and trust each other to be able to succeed. From last year to this year, we have built up that trust and built up these relationships with each other to where we are ready to play and we are prepared mentally and physically.''
John Wolford will start at quarterback for the Demon Deacons, but Kendall Hinton also will play. Wolford has started 22 of the 23 games he's played at the school, throwing for 1,791 yards last season while completing 61 percent of his passes with 11 interceptions and nine touchdowns. Hinton made two starts as a freshman in 2015 and rushed for seven touchdowns with four TD throws and five interceptions.
Fritz is taking over a Tulane team that - like Wake Forest - is coming off consecutive 3-9 seasons, the latter of which cost fourth-year coach Curtis Johnson his job. His Georgia Southern teams led the Bowl Subdivision in rushing in both of his seasons there, and he led the Eagles to a Sun Belt title in his first season and a bowl game to end Year 2.
''The main thing I really want to see is incredible effort,'' Fritz said. ''We talk around here about, `The Wave don't beat the Wave.' Let's stay away from those pre-snap penalties ... and just play a clean game.''
Some things to know about the Tulane-Wake Forest opener:
- RUNNING WAVE: The Green Wave figure to cycle in four running backs as part of a run-heavy system, with Dontrell Hilliard, Sherman Badie, Josh Rounds and Lazedrick Thompson getting most of the work. They'll look to replicate what Fritz's Georgia Southern team did last year, averaging 363 yards per game and nearly 6.5 yards per carry. Tulane ranked 119th last year in the FBS in rushing, averaging just 115.8 yards.
- DEMON DEACONS' D: Wake Forest returns seven starters from their defense, but must replace three members of their front seven, including mainstay LBs Brandon Chubb and Hunter Williams. DL Duke Ejiofor will be important up front, after he recorded a sack in four of the seven games he played last year and had a team-best 4.5 sacks.
- RUNNING WAKE: The Demon Deacons have struggled to get their ground game going under Clawson, mainly because of a young offensive line and injuries that mounted at key positions. Wake Forest was 123rd nationally in rushing last year and 127th in 2014. They've got more options this year, with freshman Cade Carney earning the start over redshirt freshman Rocky Reid and sophomore Matt Colburn. Freshman Tyler Bell, who rushed for a team-best 451 yards last year, was the first freshman to lead the team in rushing since 1982 but dealt with injuries during camp.
- THE SERIES: Tulane has won both previous meetings between the schools with similar profiles - small, private, academically elite - but they haven't met since 1995.