All Sports Tucson Talk

PODCASTS: Arizona commit Keona Wilhite & his coach at Salpointe, Eric Rogers

Salpointe defensive end Keona Wilhite was an unknown talent to anybody in Southern Arizona, let alone across the Pac-12 terrain at this time last summer.

Wilhite made headline news Monday by committing to Arizona over Pac-12 schools UCLA, Washington, Oregon State and ASU. He was also recruited by BYU, Colorado and Nebraska, among others.

Wilhite, 6-foot-5 and 236 pounds, made his commitment to Jedd Fisch’s program despite having an official visit scheduled for Washington’s campus this weekend.

Keona Wilhite

He visited UCLA on May 26, Oregon State on June 2 and was at the Arizona campus during the weekend.

“All the schools I visited, they checked off all my boxes,” said Wilhite, who was recruited primarily by Arizona defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen and defensive ends coach Jason Kaufusi. “So coming down to that, I had to compare the way I felt with the school, and how my family felt. Seeing the way my family interacted, and just the smiles on their face when they were at the Arizona visit, compared to all the other visits, I knew it was the right place because I knew my family would be taken care of.

“They will just enjoy everything about Arizona and they fell in love with it, too.”

After two non-descript seasons at Cienega, Wilhite transferred to Salpointe before last school year and transformed from a no-name player to a 3-star (and rising) prospect despite missing the first five games of the 2022 season due to AIA transfer rules.

The first two months of last season, waiting for his opportunity to play, were valuable as he absorbed what was coached to him by Salpointe coach Eric Rogers and the coaching staff and weight-trained with strength and conditioning coach Carla Garrett.

“Before I was able to get on the field, during my transfer, I mainly just focused on getting better because I knew I was gonna have to sit out,” Wilhite said. “All I did was just work with my father and Coach Garrett, getting stronger, getting quicker and getting more agile. I was learning the playbook. When I got on the field, I was just able to perform and be out there with no distractions.

“I knew everything, and I was just courageous, feeling confident.”

Salpointe coach Eric Rogers (Andy Morales/

Rogers, entering his fourth season as head coach at Salpointe this fall, recalls vividly how Wilhite literally burst on to the scene with the Lancers last season with Fisch on the sidelines.

“Keona shoots through and he hits this guy, picks him up and body slams him and then just kind of does one of those roars right in front of Coach Fisch,” Rogers said. “I swear it was a week later he had an offer from Arizona. That was like, ‘Oh, here we go. This is it. This guy’s for real.’ I mean, it’s just kind of snowballed from there.”

Wilhite was also instrumental in Salpointe advancing to the quarterfinals of the 6A state playoffs when he made a sack against Williams Field on a third-down play in overtime, forcing the Black Hawks to kick a field goal. Salpointe scored a touchdown on its ensuing possession to win the game and advance to play at Gilbert Highlands in the quarterfinals.

The Lancers led 10-7 at halftime in a defensive struggle and came up short to Highland 14-10 after allowing a third-quarter touchdown. Highland went on to win the 6A championship

“It’s driving us a lot because it still stings us because we only lost the game by four points,” Wilhite said. “So that’s still stuck in our hearts. We use that as motivation every day to get better and keep pushing for a championship.”

Wilhite attributes his ascent to a Division I prospect to Garrett and Salpointe’s coaches, including the Lancers’ director of football operations George Rushing.

Rushing’s oldest son Cruz (a former Salpointe standout) is a defensive back with the Wildcats after transferring from Florida, where the eldest Rushing played as a tight end when Steve Spurrier coached the Gators.

Elijah Rushing, the next-oldest son of the family, is also a high-profile Class of 2024 defensive end with Salpointe who is being recruited by Arizona and many other elite Power 5 programs.

“He’s been a major factor,” Wilhite said about George Rushing concerning his development. “He gives me a lot of information and he coaches me up. Elijah and I train together, too.”

The natural question (of which Wilhite obviously can’t answer at this time) is will his decision to attend Arizona impact the choices of Rushing and high-profile defensive tackle and offensive tackle Luis Cordova, yet another Power 5 prospect with the Lancers?

“I do not want to pressure them just because I’m going there (to Arizona),” Wilhite said. “I want them to go to a school that they where they love.

“But I would love to have them over with me because those are my guys. But if they don’t choose or end up going there, I’m fully supporting them.”

A defensive line that is comprised of Wilhite and Elijah Rushing on the ends and Cordova at nose tackle has the makings of the best group at that position in the history of Southern Arizona football and one of the best ever in the state.

It appears to be the best assembly of talent on a defensive line since Tucson’s 1971 state championship team that had a trio of senior standouts — defensive end Jinx Johnson and tackles Mike Dawson and Mike Bailey. Dawson, Johnson and Bailey (who mostly played center on offense but also played tackle on the defensive line) all signed with Arizona.

Johnson eventually left for Colorado and wound up at Mesa Community College before ending his college career as a tight end at Pittsburgh.

Bailey ultimately played right guard at Arizona.

Dawson remained a defensive tackle and became a first-round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1976 and played in the NFL for nine years.

“I mean, that D-line that we have is something special; they’re gonna be fun to watch,” said Rogers, who noted the Lancers also have two talented sophomore defensive linemen — Noah Banhie (offered a scholarship by Arizona last week) and Javion Wilson.

“You’re not going to necessarily be able to double team, anyone. … Maybe you leave a tight end on one side and a running back on the other. But then pretty soon now you got three guys going out for a pass and that’s it. So now you’re really limited. We’ve limited what the offense can do with those receivers if they want to try to double those guys. If you single themy, I don’t know if they can be blocked with one guy.”

Wilhite added that he is excited about teaming with Elijah Rushing and Cordova on the line for a full season. Cordova played on the offensive line last season but Rogers wants him to split time on both sides of the line this season.

“It excites me, it really does,” Wilhite said. “Having Elijah by my side and Luis by my side, it gives me a lot more confidence. It just gives the whole team a lot more confidence. With this line. We believe we could take it all the way to state and win it.”

The Lancers will sharpen themselves throughout the season with an arduous schedule that includes road games against powers Mission Hills (Calif.) Bishop Alemany, Peoria Liberty and Scottsdale Saguaro.

Salpointe is the only 6A school in Southern Arizona, so Marana, a 5A power, is the only local team on the Lancers’ schedule.


Head coach: Eric Rogers
Lancers compete in the 6A Central. Bold are playoff games. Playoff games at 7 p.m.
9/1at Bishop Alemany (CA)W5221
9/8at Shadow RidgeW4924
9/15Valley VistaW506
9/29Desert VistaW3424
10/6Corona del SolW2920
10/13at LibertyL049
10/20Mountain PointeW3526
10/27at SaguaroW2114
11/3at Brophy PrepL1214
11/9Corona del SolW410
11/17Williams FieldW3525

The Lancers will play a California school for the first time since they played at Crespi in Encino on Sept. 7, 2013. The Lancers, who also won at Henderson (Nev.) Liberty to start the season, won the Division II state championship that year with a 14-0 record.

“We’ve got to stay healthy,” Rogers said. “That’s our biggest thing. We’re gonna try to fight and scratch and claw and give them the best games we can give them and try and stay healthy. That’s our biggest thing — stay healthy.”

FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER! publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports,, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
To Top