Long before Kyle Kelley earned Parade All-America honors as a defensive end, he was a self-described "baseball guy" simply looking for a place to go to college.
So Kelley and his father took the most unofficial of recruiting visits, road-tripping to a half-dozen schools in the West. Washington and Colorado were nice, Kelley said, and USC and UCLA were exactly what the Irvine, Calif., native expected.
Throughout Kelley's travels, one school - Arizona - stood out.
"That's the kind of college town I like," he said. "Those trips were great. It was the first time I went around and saw different schools, and I liked what I saw."
Kelley will sign a national letter of intent today with the Arizona Wildcats, capping a two-year process marked by hirings and firings, a scheme change and a few fleeting moments of doubt.
That he and 20 other high school seniors are signing with the Wildcats at all is a testament to first-year coach Rich Rodriguez's reputation as a recruiter.
Since being hired Nov. 21 to replace Mike Stoops, the former West Virginia and Michigan coach has filled a staff with accomplished recruiters and cobbled together a signing class that is - given the circumstances - unlike any in recent UA history.
The Scout.com recruiting service lists the 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pound Kelley as a three-star recruit. He chose Arizona over offers from Arizona State, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina State, Oklahoma, Utah and Washington.
Linebacker Dakota Conwell is the only four-star prospect expected to sign with the Wildcats today.
Like many in Rodriguez's first recruiting class, Conwell - a senior at Pittsburgh's Upper Saint Clair High School - initially planned to play somewhere else. But when Pitt coach Todd Graham bolted for Arizona State and the Panthers' position coaches scattered, some to the UA, Conwell reopened his recruitment.
He reconnected with Arizona safeties coach Tony Gibson, a former Pitt aide, and within a matter of weeks chose the Wildcats over his hometown school. Reaction to Conwell's choice has been mixed, he said, but he's held firm. The linebacker planned to sign his letter of intent at about 4:30 a.m., Tucson time, while all but the biggest football junkies would be asleep.
"I tell them that it's my life," Conwell said. "It's the best decision for me and the best opportunity."
Arizona's recruiting class has a national feel, a rarity for a program that's rarely strayed outside the Southwest. Rodriguez's first class boasts players from eight different states, including three prospects from Florida and one from Hawaii. Twelve of the Wildcats' recruits verbally committed this month, turning down offers from - or, in some cases, breaking commitments to - far-away programs.
The class includes Trey Griffey, the son of former baseball great Ken Griffey Jr., and players with the first names Clive, Yamen and Cayman (last names: Georges, Sanders and Bundage).
It won't include Gerron Borne, though.
The defensive tackle from Reserve, La., will reportedly sign with New Mexico after visiting Albuquerque over the weekend. Borne was considered a "soft verbal" commitment to the UA, and there was some question as to whether he'd actually sign with the Wildcats.
Kelley, meanwhile, remains a sure thing - and has been since verbally committing July 9. He visited Colorado and Oklahoma after Stoops was fired, but, Kelley said, he never really considered going anywhere else.
Arizona fit, flaws and all.
"Once I visited there," Kelley said, "it felt like home."
The Arizona Wildcats will address three major needs with their 2012 signing day class:
• The best: Dakota Conwell, Pittsburgh (Pa.) Upper St. Clair High School
• Sleeper: C.J. Dozier, Temecula (Calif.) Chaparral High School
• The best: Beau Boyster, C, Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco High School
• Sleeper: T.D. Gross, OT, Santee (Calif.) Santana High School
• The best: Kyle Kelley, DE, Irvine (Calif.) Woodbridge High School
• Sleeper: Dwight Melvin, DT, Laveen Betty H. Fairfax High School
If you go
• What: University of Arizona signing day reception
• When: 5:30 p.m. today
• Where: Arizona Stadium
• Cost: $5 for season ticket-holders, $15 for general public