Defense, especially pass defense, has not been the Cardinal's strong suit in recent years. The squad's success has largely been a result of the Luck-lead offense, ranked in the top 10 nationally in total offense the past two seasons, racking up enough points to cover any defensive deficiency.
But that era is over. Luck is gone, along with tight end Colby Fleener and several other offensive cogs. The big names on this year's Cardinal squad will be trying to keep the scoreboard quiet.
While the Cardinal pass defense was ranked 95th in the country in 2011, the run defense was ranked fourth, allowing a stingy 88.38 yards a game. And all the centerpieces of that run defense are back in 2012
Redshirt senior outside linebacker Chase Thomas is the veteran of the group, and the team captain is garnering national attention as one of the nation's top run stoppers. Thomas was named to the preseason watch list for several national awards, including the Butkus award, which goes to college football's top linebacker.
"It all starts with Chase," said redshirt junior defensive end Ben Gardner.
Thomas grabbed the national spotlight by leading the Pac-12 in tackles for loss per game, and was second in sacks per game last year. Sporting News named the redshirt senior an All-American following last season.
Joining Thomas on the Butkus Award watch list is senior middle linebacker Shayne Skov and redshirt junior outside linebacker Trent Murphy. After being named an honorable mention All-Pac-10 player his sophomore year, Skov tore his ACL in week three of his junior campaign, ending his season.
Skov's return will help shore up the Cardinal's linebacking corp. He brings the speed needed to fix the open-field tackling problems that Gardner named as the defense's biggest problem in 2011.
"The teams that have given us trouble in the past are teams with playmakers on the perimeter, guys that can make you miss in the open field," Gardner said. "We gave up too many big plays last year, and if we can limit those big plays by making the tackle on the first try then we are going to be fine this year."
Gardner, a second team All-Pac-12 selection last year, was named to the Lombardi watch list as one of the nation's top linemen.
"We feel like we could have one of the best rush defenses in the nation this year," said Gardner.