Running back Nick Wilson.

Kelly Presnell / Arizona Daily Star

Fair or not, the reality of recruiting is that each class is defined by rankings.

That is, how many elite recruits — four or five stars — a school reels in, and who the centerpiece is from each class.

It’s not a big deal when a four or five-star commits to USC.

It can be program-changing when someone ranked that high commits to Arizona, which has never signed a five-star recruit since Rich Rodriguez was hired as coach in 2012.

That’s not for a lack of trying, though.

“It’s not the determining factor of whether you’re recruiting them or not but I think you look at it,” Rodriguez said. “Would I take a class of 25 five-stars? You bet.”

The Wildcats did get a commitment from five-star cornerback Jalen Tabor in 2014 before he flipped to Florida. Five-star defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie had Arizona in his final two before picking Tennessee, and four-stars like quarterback Braxton Burmeister, athlete Greg Johnson and cornerback Naijiel Hale all committed to UA before decided to go elsewhere.

Still, relative to the program’s history, Arizona has done OK bringing in four-star recruits. Most of them just haven’t panned out, at least not yet.

With a wave of “RichRod is on the hot seat” rumors circulating after a 3-9 season and 1-1 start to 2017, momentum for Arizona’s 2018 recruiting class has dampened and, though it is early, the Wildcats might not sign a single four-star rated player in 2018.

What does that mean? And is that bad?

Those are questions with multiple layers. For one, Arizona’s recruiting strategy doesn’t have the Wildcats targeting quite as many elite recruits. At least, elite according to the rankings — Arizona has only nine four-star rated players on its board, though that is constantly changing. Of those nine, UA is a long shot for most of them.

Arizona special teams coach Brian Knorr was hired after a year at Ohio State as a staff analyst. Led by coach Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes often have the problem of too many four- and five-star recruits wanting to commit, to the point where there’s not enough spots.

Tough life.

“I think obviously with the recruiting these days, there’s a handful of schools out there that are going to shoot for the five-stars,” Knorr said.

In the last six years, and including junior college recruits, Rodriguez has signed 15 four-star recruits. Arizona State signed 12 in the last two years, and 25 since 2012.

What does that mean for Arizona?

Here’s a closer look at how Arizona has done recruiting four-star players in the past and present, with a look ahead to 2018. All ratings are according to Scout.com.

Past: How does RichRod stack up vs. Stoops?

In eight years at Arizona, coach Mike Stoops signed 23 players rated four or five-stars, though eight of them were junior college transfers. So in terms of high school recruits, Rodriguez has only signed one less four-star players (14) in six years than Stoops did in eight (15).

The difference — Stoops clearly had greater success with the players once they arrived. That group of 15 players included five unquestioned successes in tight end Rob Gronkowski, quarterback Willie Tuitama and Matt Scott, safety/linebacker Marquis Flowers and safety Rob Golden. Palo Verde product Adam Hall flashed talent but battled injuries and quit the team and cornerback Devin Ross was solid for a couple of years.

The rest left much to be desired.

One recruit (McCollins Umeh) passed away before playing a down, and the rest either never contributed, left the team before enrolling or didn’t play out their eligibility at Arizona.

As for Rodriguez’s track record with four-star recruits … it’s not great.

Present: How have four-stars performed?

Of Rodriguez’s 14 four-star recruits signed since 2012, the case could be made that only two have panned out.

One is running back Nick Wilson, who ran for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns in 13 games as a freshman, but only 1,143 and 12 touchdowns in 15 games since as he’s battled a multitude of injuries.

The other isn’t even at Arizona anymore — quarterback Anu Solomon helped Arizona to a Pac-12 South title in 2014 and passed for 3,793 yards and 28 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman, then dealt with injuries and poor performance for the last two years before transferring to Baylor.

It’s still too early to judge four others: Quarterback Khalil Tate, running back Nathan Tilford, offensive lineman Michael Eletise and safety Chacho Ulloa are still in their first or second year at Arizona.

The results of the rest of the group are troubling, and a few in particular have contributed to some of Arizona’s depth and talent issues at key positions.

Linebackers Marquis Ware and Jamardre Cobb surprisingly committed to Arizona together in 2014. Ware has since retired from football, and Cobb is now a 275-pound fullback who rarely sees the field.

Offensive lineman Keenan Walker is the highest-rated recruit from Arizona to sign with Rodriguez, and after dealing with some off-the-field issues and injuries, he left the program this summer without ever playing a game.

Defensive lineman Marcus Griffin was a last-minute commit in 2014. He’s now a senior and not even in Arizona’s defensive line playing rotation.

Cam Denson was an electric playmaker at Salpointe Catholic and committed to Arizona early. After starting out at cornerback he switched to wide receiver last year and, now a senior, he’s only a backup with 16 career catches.

In 2013, the Wildcats signed running back Pierre Cormier and Derek Babiash from the San Diego area. Cormier retired due to injuries and Babiash transferred to San Diego State after one year.

Future: What’s in
store for 2018?

Last March, four-star athlete Greg Johnson shocked many when he committed to Arizona. He was the No. 1-rated athlete in the West, a player Arizona doesn’t usually get. That spurred a wave of summer and commitments, including a few more four-stars.

Of course, Johnson eventually flipped to USC, Burmeister to Oregon and four-star cornerback Thomas Graham — a silent commit to Arizona before assistant Donte Williams left for Nebraska — joined the Ducks, too.

In the end, the Wildcats only signed one four-star (Tilford), but that initial Johnson signing proved at least one thing — recruiting is all about perception.

Talent evaluation is important too, but the only way to have a shot at one of those highly-rated recruits is to … well, get one of those highly-rated recruits.

The point being — Arizona hasn’t done that yet for 2018, and it probably won’t.

Of UA’s nine four-star targets, five have Alabama offers and seven have USC offers. One, quarterback Jack Tuttle, is committed to Utah.

Two others, receivers Jalen Hall and Tommy Bush, have more than 40 scholarship offers from practically every blue-blood program.

Arizona’s best shot might be at Khalil Shakir, a receiver from Murrieta, California, whose other best offers are from UCLA, Arizona State, Colorado and Washington State, but even that is a longshot.

The way Knorr sees it, some of the players Arizona is recruiting might not be four-stars now, but they could become that.

“We went all over the country this summer at camps and we were able to evaluate and see guys perform,” Knorr said. “The amount of kids we were able to observe that maybe are two-stars right now or maybe have some smaller offers … will end up, in time, being 4-stars.”

Added Rodriguez: “We just try to find the best guys we can get for our program.”

Contact: zrosenblatt@tucson.com or 573-4145. On Twitter: @ZackBlatt