The proof of what coach was the best hire of 2012 in the Pac-12 is the defense.
All four hires remain, in their sixth seasons at their respective schools — Rich Rodriguez at Arizona, Todd Graham at ASU, Jim Mora at UCLA and Mike Leach at Washington State.
Leach, ironically one of the best offensive minds in the game with his “Air Raid” passing-oriented offense, has by far the most credible defense. His team is the only one ranked, No. 11 with a 5-0 record, compared to his fellow hires from 2012.
He is the only one not mentioned to be on a hot seat.
The Cougars’ defense is also No. 11 nationally allowing only 275.2 yards per game. Graham’s defense at ASU, which ranks No. 119, allowed Stanford running back Bryce Love to gain more than that (301 yards) in one game last week.
Rodriguez’s defenses have ranked higher than No. 100 in four of his five previous seasons, including a No. 105 rating in 2014 when the Wildcats won the Pac-12 South.
His best season defensively was a No. 63 ranking in 2013, the freshmen season of linebacker Scooby Wright and sophomore year of safety Will Parks.
Many of the other defenders were left over from the Mike Stoops era, including Reggie Gilbert, Dan Pettinato, Marquis Flowers, Jake Fischer, Shaquille Richardson, Jonathon McKnight, Richard Morrison, Jourdon Grandon and Tra’Mayne Bondurant.
The Wildcats stand at No. 62 presently but they have not faced a highly potent offense. NAU is an FCS school. Houston has an average attack at No. 61 (420.5 yards a game). UTEP ranks last — No. 130 — in total offense at 220.6 yards per game.
Utah is No. 47 but the Utes do not have an identifiable running back and its starting quarterback Tyler Huntley went down with a shoulder injury in the second quarter against the Wildcats a couple of weeks ago.
Tomorrow’s opponent Colorado ranks No. 64 in total offense, much like Houston an offense with a capable but not overpowering running and passing game.
Pac-12 coaching hires in 2012 with overall record and national total defense rankings each season:
Colorado’s Steven Montez threw for 243 yards in last week’s 27-23 loss at UCLA but completed only 17 of 36 pass attempts. Montez also led the Buffaloes in rushing with 108 yards on 15 carries and Philip Lindsay added 83 yards on 19 carries against Mora’s defense, that ranks No. 123 nationally.
The Bruins generally have showcased a much better defense than this under Mora. Their slippage could make Mora slip right out of a job. His defense ranked No. 47 nationally last season but finished 4-8 mostly because of the early-season injury suffered by quarterback Josh Rosen.
Mora’s lowest defensive rating is No. 78 in his first season.
Graham’s defenses at ASU have shown the most decay over the course of the tenures of the coaches hired in 2012. The Sun Devils have gone from No. 27 in total defense in 2012 and No. 42 in 2013 (mostly with Dennis Erickson holdovers) to No. 83 in 2014, No. 113 in 2015 and No. 127 last season.
The Sun Devils, missing top-notch linebacker Koron Crump with a season-ending leg injury, appear headed to another triple-digit defensive ranking.
Leach was once the coach with most glaring hot seat when Portland State upset the Cougars in the 2015 season opener. The Vikings rushed for 233 yards in their first victory over a Pac-12 teams in 15 tries.
“We didn’t tackle very good,” Leach said afterward. “We are a lot better team than that.”
Since then, Washington State is 22-8 and its defense has improved immensely with top players such as linebackers Hercules Mata’afa and Peyton Pelluer, defensive tackle Robert Barber and safeties Shalom Luani and Jalen Thompson.
Washington State has a highly productive defense to go with one of the most potent offenses in the nation, led by future NFL quarterback Luke Falk.
Rodriguez’s defense is showing signs of improvement with its No. 62 ranking but has much more to prove.
Graham and Mora have defenses that are not becoming of their early years.
Leach can look back at the other hires of 2012 and smile, maybe more so at Graham because of their rift last season following the game at Tempe when Leach accused Graham of stealing signs.
He can smile while the others can not.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.