Xavier Kelley has spent the last four years trying to be perfect.
Midway through his senior season, the Arizona Wildcats' linebacker is getting closer.
Kelley registered 10 tackles in each of the Wildcats' last two victories, an Oct. 17 triumph over Stanford and an Oct. 24 win over UCLA. His 46 tackles are tops on the team.
"He's always been a great player, but he's really playing his best football," defensive coordinator Mark Stoops said.
Kelley will start at the "Will" (weakside) spot Saturday, when Arizona takes on Washington State (1-7 overall, 0-5 Pac-10) at Arizona Stadium. The Wildcats (5-2, 3-1) would become eligible for the postseason with a win.
The Star talked to Kelley, 23, about his four-year journey from backup to standout - and what it's like to try to play perfectly.
The backup. The Denton, Texas, native spent his first three seasons, including a redshirt year, as the backup to UA star Spencer Larsen.
Kelley said Larsen, currently a two-way player for the Denver Broncos, taught him "that there's a right way to do things, and there's wrong way."
"If you do things the right way, then good things will happen to you," he said. "That's what I've been focusing on - doing everything the way you're supposed to. Do my film evaluation, do the right thing every week, and doing it week to week. It's like, be consistent."
Moving in. Kelley took over at the weakside spot in 2008 and immediately became one of the Wildcats' top producers, despite his 5-foot-11-inch, 215-pound frame.
Playing in 12 games but starting only eight because of injuries, Kelley registered a career-high 51 tackles. He had three sacks, deflected two passes and forced two fumbles. Kelley was at his best in the Las Vegas Bowl, registering 15 tackles in the Wildcats' win.
The remarks about his size soon went away.
"It's kinda good when you can walk off the field and say, 'You just got stuffed by the little guys,'" he said.
Taking over. Kelley anchors a linebacking corps that includes three seniors - Vuna Tuihalamaka and Sterling Lewis are the other starters - but little depth. With the exception of Corey Hall, who plays the hybrid "Sam/Nickel" position, no UA backup has ever started a college game.
"We kinda knew we had to be the supermen of this group," he said. "We were little guys with little depth.
"We have to play it safe and, at the same time, play at full speed."
Tuihalamaka calls Kelley "our quiet leader."
"He really doesn't say much, but he shows it with his actions," Tuihalamaka said. "It fits his personality. He's quiet, but he gets things done."