DENVER • Nate Polk’s an Arizona kid, so he has seen what Tucson offers a Division I athlete.

The senior from Scottsdale’s Saguaro High liked it, too. I mean, come on. The sunshine, party life, scenery — who wouldn’t? But the Pac-12 football program was not his choice.

The University of Utah was another option. Four bowl wins in five years, a Pac-12 division title last year, big-time coach in Kyle Whittingham. What’s not to like? OK, it’s Utah, but other than that.

“It wasn’t that the other schools weren’t great,” Polk told me in a phone chat. “They were.”

San Diego State, Louisville, Oregon. They all called, some offered full-ride scholarships.

And Polk, a 6-foot-2 safety with NFL genes, on Wednesday signed with the Air Force Academy. He’s the highest-rated recruit to sign there in at least 12 years, according to 247Sports’ rankings. Now that’s an athlete with a long-term vision. That’s a guy you want on your team.

“Honestly, I didn’t really think much of it. I had some bigger Pac-12 chances, and they were great. That would be really cool,” Polk said. “But ...”

But there’s a “but” with a 2019 Air Force recruiting class that turned some heads around the Mountain West Conference. There’s a bunch of buts, over 100 buts, a movement of forward thinkers who respected the offers they received from traditional football factories ... but respected what the academy can do for their lives over the long haul just a little bit more.

“... After talking to my family and thinking about it, going on our visit, getting to know the coaches, I felt like Air Force was the best place for my future,” Polk continued. “I want to try my best to get to the NFL, but if not I’m not sure what I’m going to do yet. And I know going (there) leaves so many doors open for me. I know I’ll have so many opportunities after school.”

Blame Brent Briggeman for this column. The best beat writer in Colorado wrote on signing day this recruiting class — with 102 members, it’s massive — ranks among the highest-rated classes ever signed by Air Force. He says it has 21 prospects who were three-star recruits, the most in the Mountain West and roughly double what the Falcons usually bring in.

Well, that’ll get your attention. It got Ben Garland’s attention, too, and the proud Air Force graduate and veteran NFL lineman took to Twitter to congratulate the biggest get of the recruiting class — Kyle Patterson, a 6-5, 245-pound tight end from Arizona who had Alabama and Georgia knocking down his door when their tight ends left early for the NFL draft.

“You don’t turn down the type of opportunities that Kyle had if you don’t have some sort of long-term vision for what you want your life to be,” said Preston Jones, the coach at Perry High School in Gilbert, Ariz., where Patterson carved out a memorable career. "Those types of guys, they’ve got a different vision. They’re not thinking about the glitz and glamour. They’re thinking about what’s important for their future.”

UCLA. Georgia Tech. Kansas State. They all dug Patterson, who followed up a recruiting visit to Washington, the reigning Pac-12 champ, with a trip to Air Force. And he chose the Falcons.

”I think Kyle is an NFL type of tight end,” Jones said. “But I think (his family) doesn’t want to count on that happening. His decision, it’s a lifelong plan type of thing.”

Back to Polk. He had options, and good ones. And when it came to the recruiting process, there was no shortage of information available to him. His father played at Oklahoma State and in the NFL. His brother played at Colorado (“I was a huge CU fan,” Nate said), in the NFL and now is an Army Ranger. And his baby bro, Matt Polk, is a highly regarded wideout at Saguaro.

”He’s got some hands,” Nate said, and Matt Polk no doubt will be a recruiting target for Air Force.

Air Force assistant coach Alex Means, a former Falcon who worked himself into several NFL camps, an active duty assignment in Germany and eventually onto Troy Calhoun’s staff, was the lead recruiter on Nate Polk. “Love him,” Polk said. His visit included a tour of the prep school, which Polk will attend in 2019-2020, a photo shoot in Falcons uniforms, all-you-can-eat night at a Brazilian steakhouse, a glance through the dorms, bowling and laser tag. You know, a recruiting trip.

“Looking at this recruiting class I was thinking this year, my class, has potential to be really special and make a really big name for the Air Force,” Polk said.

But — there’s that word again — if college football doesn’t lead to an NFL paycheck ...

”I’m still going to be in a great spot for a career,” he said.

(Contact Gazette sports columnist Paul Klee at paul.klee@gazette.com or on Twitter at @bypaulklee.)

Sports columnist

Denver sports columnist for The Gazette

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