SOUTH BEND, IN - FILE: Head coach Rich Rodriguez of the Michigan Wolverines watches as his team takes on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 11, 2010 in South Bend, Indiana. According to reports November 22, 2011, Arizona hired Rodriguez, a former coach at Michigan, as their head football coach. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Recruiting classes are graded in star ratings. But were they judged in miles, Arizona's might be the nation's best. Head coach Rich Rodriguez went to eight different states to put together his first UA signing class: Arizona, California, Florida, Hawai'i, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Texas all produced at least one new Wildcat.
"Can we recruit nationally at Arizona? I'd like to think so," Rodriguez said in Wednesday's press conference. "But can we beat the programs that traditionally recruit nationlly in their own backayrds? Probably not. Maybe three, four, five years in the future we can say 'We're Arizona,' and [the recruits]'ll say 'Can you visit?'"
For not quite being ready to compete nationally, Rodriguez's staff did an admirable job going to all corners of the nation for talent. Rodriguez said he was "weary" from the travel, but spoke confidently in the haul.
The new head coach gushed over each of the 24 signees, as well as Akron transfer linebacker Brian Wagner, who was second only to Boston College's Luke Kuechly in tackles made last season.
"All will contribute at some point. Some have the chance to contribute right away," he said.
Others are skeptical. Rivals.com ranked the UA class No. 11 of 12 in the conference as of Wednesday afternoon, with an average star rating of 2.88 -- slightly higher than No. 9 Colorado, but with four fewer signings overall.
Nevertheless, there are indications that perhaps the evaluation process undervalues some of UA's newbies.
Prep prospects are thrust into the national spotlight as freshmen, sometimes earlier. Two of Rodriguez's noteworthy commits were what he described as late bloomers.
"Clive Georges...[his] upside is really high," Rodriguez said. "His senior year, he took another big leap. His high school coach, Jerry Hughes, is someone I've known a long time from my days at West Virginia. [Georges ] is one of the fastest 100-meter guys in Florida.
"And Trey Griffey," he continued, "His senior year, he really took off.
"[Griffey] has good genes," Rodriguez laughed.
Targeting late developing prospects fits UA, given Rodriguez was hired in late November and did not have a finalized staff until midway through January. However, Griffey and Georges are both products of pipelines the UA coaches established lone ago. Each comes from the prep football gold mine that is Florida, as well as speedy slotback-style player JT Washington. The Sunshine State has been relatively uncultivated recruiting ground for the Wildcats under regimes of old.
Expect a new trend.
"[Co-offensive coordinator] Rod [Smith] recruits Orlando well, and has been doing it for a long time," Rodriguez said.
Though Rodriguez told Brian Jeffries in an interview that in-state recruiting would take top priority, the Florida pipeline should prove increasingly key. It was one of a few target locales the head coach mentioned today.
"[Los Angeles], San Diego, Houston, Dallas; then New Orleans, and Florida," he listed. "I might not have to wear a jacket to recruit in the future. Just makes sense to do [recruit in those locations]. We don't want to chase across 3 time zones on a maybe or if."
The Rust Belt did provide UA with some relief in key positions, though.
Linebacker Dakota Conwell and receiver Wayne Capers each came from Pennsylvania. Capers had been recruited heavily by Tony Gibson while he was at Pitt. Gibson continued that recruitment after re-joining Rodriguez at UA, beating out Penn State and West Virginia for the 6'1, 205-pound prospect.
UA went closer to home to beat out some prominent BCS names for its final signee of a busy Wednesday. Bryan Harper of Ontario, Calif., had his press conference after Rodriguez's press conference, but the head coach let the 'Cat out of the bag.
Harper "could be a quarterback, a wide receiver, a safety, a cornerback. He could return kicks," Rodriguez said.
With such a diverse skill set, it's no wonder Pac-12 foes UCLA and Oregon were pursuing the Colony High star heavily. He was one of two pleasant surprises to sign Wednesday, the other coming from Arizona prep powerhouse Chaparral.
Defensive end Dylan Cozens became the second Firebird to sign with the Wildcats this week. Rodriguez said the staff "[identified] Cozens as soon as we got here." Cozens chose UA over Boise State and Washington, and joins his high school coach, Charlie Ragle, as well as prep teammate linebacker Cody Ippolito.
Ippolito underwent surgery following the football season and could wait until next January before enrolling, Rodriguez said, but has a spot reserved. Ippolito is a friend of highly touted Davonte' Neal, the final target in the 2012 class.
Neal will announce his choice next week. With such programs as Notre Dame and Stanford in hot pursuit, a Neal signing would be the undisputed gem of Rodriguez's first crop. But should he sign elsewhere, Woodbridge (Irvine, Calif.) High defensive end Kyle Kelley is a name to remember. He made 22 sacks last season en route to All California Interscholastic Federation recognition.