Arizona Wildcats head football coach Kevin Sumlin takes in the Salpointe Catholic vs. Scottsdale Saguaro 4A state championship football game, Nov. 30, 2018, at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Ariz.

Earlier this month, the Arizona coaching staff covered the state of Arizona. Football staff members, including coach Kevin Sumlin, visited more than 100 high schools, from the biggest producers of Division I talent in the Phoenix area to the smallest ones in Tucson.

The message the Wildcat convoy conveyed could be heard loud and clear: Sumlin’s signing-day proclamation — “We’re going to start everything in-state” — wasn’t just a public relations ploy. He’s determined to build lasting relationships throughout Arizona.

“It puts weight to his words,” said Brandon Sanders, the former UA and NFL safety who’s now the head coach at Pueblo High School. “You’ve always gotta take care of home.”

The UA has succeeded to a degree in recent years. But it’s also fallen short of some of its top competitors.

The Wildcats have landed nine players ranked in the top 20 of 247Sports.com’s composite rankings over the past five recruiting cycles. That’s the second-most in the Pac-12 behind Arizona State’s 15.

However, Arizona has signed only two players ranked in the top five in the state over that span. ASU has signed five; USC has signed three.

The Wildcats’ highest-rated in-state signee in the 2019 class is Marana High School tackle Jordan Morgan — Arizona’s 40th-ranked player, per 247Sports.com. The UA coaching staff would refute that assessment of Morgan, but the larger point is undeniable: At the tail end of a transition year, Arizona barely made a dent within the state.

“The 2019 class was a big whiff for them,” said Blair Angulo, who covers recruiting in the mountain and island regions for 247Sports.com. “They need to re-establish those in-state connections. Your core has to be those local (players). You can’t allow the out-of-region programs to come in and beat you out.”

Sumlin and his staff had a legitimate excuse in Year 1: He wasn’t hired until mid-January, and it took several months to put a full staff — and a comprehensive recruiting plan — in place. Now that Sumlin has assembled his team, the UA can attack the 2020 class with vigor. And what a class it is.

Led by five-star cornerback Kelee Ringo of powerhouse Scottsdale Saguaro High School, the ’20 class could be the best in state history. Angulo said there are 25-30 players who are “high-caliber, D-1 prospects.” Jason Jewell of Sports360AZ.com, who has been chronicling in-state recruiting since 2003, said 27 prospects already have received offers from Power 5 conference schools.

The vast majority play for Phoenix-area high schools. If anyone knows how to pull big-time talent out of those cities, it’s Sumlin.

Salpointe Catholic’s Lathan Ransom, left, celebrating with teammate Bijan Robinson in a state semifinal game last season, holds college offers from 14 schools, including the UA.

Sumlin’s successes

When he was the coach at Texas A&M, Sumlin signed three top-five Arizona prospects in a two-year span: quarterback Kyle Allen, defensive end Qualen Cunningham and receiver Christian Kirk.

Allen and Kirk were the top-rated players in the state. Allen ended up transferring to Houston and started an NFL game this past season. Kirk was the Cardinals’ second-round pick last spring and caught 43 passes as a rookie.

Angulo and Jewell both believe Sumlin and his staff are capable of persuading similar prospects to come to Tucson, even though players from those high schools — Scottsdale Desert Mountain High School, Chandler Hamilton High School and Saguaro — haven’t had Arizona on their radar in recent years.

“Without a doubt,” Angulo said. “Sumlin proved it with Kyle Allen. He landed Christian Kirk. He has had success.”

Recruiting to Arizona is not the same as recruiting to Texas A&M, however. Sumlin’s tenure there coincided with the Aggies’ move to the SEC. A&M has more resources and a bigger brand. In the same class, 2014, in which he signed Allen, Sumlin landed Myles Garrett, the No. 1 prospect in the nation and a future No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.

Arizona doesn’t “have the reputation of a Michigan, where they can just show up one time, or an Alabama, that wow factor,” Jewell said. “You have to show your face. You have to be diligent in recruiting these guys. You’ve got to be able to get them down to Tucson for unofficial visits.

“If you want to get local kids, you really have to put forth the effort to get them.”

Sumlin understands the challenges the UA faces. It’s why he and his staff put a caravan together in the first place.

And that’s not all: The university hosted more than 50 recruits on Saturday. All play at Arizona high schools.

Positive impression

The Wildcat contingent made a positive impression on at least two coaches whose players rank in the top five in the state in the class of 2020.

“Going to every high school in the state is going to warm people up,” said Eddy Zubey, the head coach at Gilbert Higley High School. “You’re at least showing effort. You took the time out of your day to do that.”

Jason Harris, the state’s second-ranked prospect, plays defensive end for Higley. He’s also a top basketball prospect for the Knights.

Harris’ brother, Jalen, is a promising third-year player for the Wildcats. Their parents are former UA athletes.

Former Higley tight end Bryce Gilbert signed with Arizona in 2018 but never played in a game because of injuries. The Wildcats never were serious contenders for four-star class of ’19 defensive end Ty Robinson, who signed with Nebraska. Asked why, Zubey said: “I wish I knew.”

Zubey, an ASU graduate, and other coaches said their role isn’t to steer players to a particular school. Instead, they present as much information as possible and help guide players and their families through the recruiting process.

The Harrises are different in that they’ve been through it several times. Jason Harris has scholarship offers from at least 20 colleges, including Alabama, Texas and USC.

Because of family ties, Arizona is in the mix. Ultimately, though, “it’s really up to him what he wants to do,” Zubey said.

The same goes for Salpointe Catholic High School tailback Bijan Robinson, the state’s third-ranked prospect according to 247Sports.com. On Jan. 11, eight UA assistant coaches visited Salpointe. Lancers coach Dennis Bene described the occasion as an opportunity for two groups of coaches — his and Sumlin’s — to get a feel for each other and talk football. Bene said the message from the UA staff was simple and direct: “If you need anything from us, we’re going to be here.”

“It’s always good when the university extends that branch,” Bene said. “They have so many resources. They can be such a help. If they have that open-door policy, it’s just a win-win for everybody.”

Salpointe also boasts safety Lathan Ransom, the state’s seventh-ranked player, and regularly produces Division I talent. Big-time coaches visit all the time, including Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh this past week.

But the Lancers don’t have four- and five-star prospects every year; they had none in 2018. Bene got the sense Sumlin and his staff would stop by regardless.

“They obviously sent a strong message that they’re serious about building relationships,” Bene said. “It’s so cyclical. You may have the best kids in town one year; you may not have any the next. It’s very important that relationships are built and that they last.”

Winning on, off field

No matter how many times Sumlin or his assistants visit Salpointe, it doesn’t mean Robinson or Ransom will become Wildcats. The UA is considered an underdog for both.

But showing up frequently only can help. Bene recalled offensive lineman Kris O’Dowd’s recruitment over a decade ago.

“We used to see Pete Carroll or one of his assistants almost weekly at Salpointe — more than any other coach or university in the country,” Bene said. “It’s no coincidence that Kris landed at USC.”

Missing out on a player like O’Dowd — or any top in-state prospect — can be detrimental in multiple ways. Not only do you lose the recruiting battle, but there’s a good chance the player will go to another Pac-12 school.

From 2016-18, 13 of the top 15 recruits from Arizona picked Pac-12 universities. Only one, quarterback Jamarye Joiner, signed with the UA.

“It’s a double loss,” Angulo said.

The challenge is to turn at least some of those losses into wins.

The coaches and analysts who talked to the Star for this story all believe Sumlin is on the right track — his goal being to build relationships in Arizona that are as strong as the ones he already has established in Texas. Eight of the UA’s 20 December signees attended high school in Texas compared to two from Arizona (Morgan and punter Kyle Ostendorp of Phoenix Desert Vista High School).

“Coach Sumlin’s no dummy,” Sanders said. “I expect him to be what he’s been. He’s been a very good recruiter.”

At least two things need to happen for Sumlin to truly succeed.

One is winning on the field. The Wildcats entered 2018 with a ton of buzz, but it quickly dissipated amid an 0-2 start. The UA recovered midway through the season but collapsed at the end, finishing 5-7.

“I feel like that program has always had the rebuilding tag next to it,” Angulo said. “They’re always looking to take that next step instead of maintaining where they are. Recruits want to know if the program they’re going to is going to have success. That’s something Sumlin has to fight against. He has to prove, hey, this time is different.”

The other step is securing the signatures of some of the state’s top talent — in 2020 and beyond. Angulo believes there’s enough to go around in ’20 for the Wildcats to land five of the top 30 players.

“But the proof is in the pudding,” Zubey said. “We’ll see who they offer and who they sign.

“We’ll see this time next year.”