Can Stanford rush to the top of the Pac-12?

James Snook/US Presswire

David Shaw will need to rely on a strong ground game and solid defensive front to keep Stanford near top of the Pac-12.

Stanford enters the season trying to fill the holes left by four All-Pac-12 first team players taken in the first two rounds of the NFL draft -- most notably Andrew Luck. And though Stanford's quarterbacks are untested, the Cardinal return several players who saw significant action last season on both sides of the ball.

The 2011 team was more geared toward rushing and defense than most realize. Despite having Luck at quarterback, the Cardinal only passed on 44.6 percent of their plays, the ninth-highest rate in the Pac-12.

All-Conference second team running back Stepfan Taylor returns for his senior season after rushing for 1,330 yards and 10 TDs on 5.5 yards per carry last season, and he will be joined in the backfield by freshman Barry Sanders, an ESPN 150 prospect of prolific lineage.

Though David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin are gone, the remaining three offensive line starters will be supplemented by three freshman studs from the ESPN 150: No. 2 OT Andrus Peat, No. 3 OG Joshua Garrett, and No. 4 OT Kyle Murphy. This group should be fully capable of replicating the 5.3 yards per rush (12th in FBS) produced by the 2011 team.

On the other side of the ball, Stanford enters 2012 with one of the strongest front-seven units in the nation. Led by LB Chase Thomas, the lone returning All-Pac-12 first team player, and new arrival Noor Davis, the second-ranked OLB in the ESPN 150, the unit should pick up right where it left off.

Stanford 2011 Rush Defense

The Cardinal excelled at stopping the run and pressuring opposing quarterbacks, allowing only 3.0 yards per rush and tallying 39 sacks. They were especially effective on third downs, when opponents were able to convert only 31.1 percent of their opportunities and only 26.0 percent by rush, the 2nd-lowest conversion rate in the nation.

Ultimately the questions lie with the quarterbacks and defensive backfield.

Quarterbacks Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes have both been with the program for more than two years, and the running game should be able to alleviate much of the pressure by creating manageable down and distance situations. Last year’s team utilized a strong running game in the first half (6.3 yds per rush, 3rd in FBS) to set up Andrew Luck and the passing game in the second half (10.0 yds per att, 2nd in FBS).

The secondary will be seeking to improve on 2011, when 75 percent of the yards the team allowed were through the air, the second-highest ratio in FBS.

However, neither the quarterbacks nor the secondary will be challenged to make big plays as much as they will be tasked with simply managing mistakes.