Hot kickers in Hot-lanta

Tennessee's James Wilhoit nailed 12 of his last 13 field goal tries during the 2003 regular season, yet he won't be the hottest kicker in the upcoming Peach Bowl game. Clemson's Aaron Hunt hit 13 of his last 14.

Clearly, there will be two hot kickers in Hot-lanta on Jan. 2. Making their individual matchup even more interesting is the fact they go back a ways. Both were Tennessee prep stars in 1999 -- Wilhoit as a sophomore at Hendersonville High, Hunt as a senior all-state pick at Oak Ridge High -- and they've bumped into one another several times since then.

''I know Aaron pretty well; we've kicked in a lot of camps together,'' Wilhoit said. ''I'm very happy for him. He's Clemson's all-time leading scorer, and he's had a heck of a career. He used to be one of my counselors at kicking camp when I was going into my senior year of high school, so I definitely have a lot of respect for their kicking game.

''I went to a camp he attended in Shippensburg, Pa., and he was at the UT camp when I was a sophomore. Last summer we were both counselors at a kicking camp in Atlanta. I've seen a lot of Aaron, and we know each other very well.''

Slowed by a muscle pull, Wilhoit made just five of his first 10 field goal tries this season. Once he, snapper Adam Miles and holder John Henderson found a groove, however, they were near-perfect the rest of the season.

''The more we got out there, the more comfortable we were,'' Wilhoit said. ''We started getting into a rhythm and, when you get into a rhythm, you don't question whether you're going to make it or not. You just go out and do what you're supposed to do. We definitely found a groove.''

An unproven redshirt freshman when the season began, Wilhoit was understandably concerned by his sluggish start. But he figured his accuracy would return once he was healthy.

''I pulled my groin right before the season started,'' he recalled. ''I would like to have gotten a little more work in preseason scrimmages because I hadn't played in a real game for a year. It was weird getting used to kicking in front of 107,000 people, especially when you hadn't kicked in more than a year.''

Wilhoit's big finish started in Game 7 at Alabama, when he was 3 for 3 on field goal tries, connecting from 31, 38 and 25 yards. He was 3 for 3 in Game 8 vs. Duke, as well, hitting from 45, 38 and 29 yards. A 41-yarder against Miami in Game 9 extended his streak to seven successes in a row before he missed a 38-yarder later in that game. Wilhoit subsequently hit from 26, 39, 41, 33 and 47 yards to finish the regular season on a 5-for-5 roll.

''There was definitely a big change,'' he said of his second-half performance. ''I thought the more I got in there, the more comfortable I would be and the better my percentage would be.''

Looking back, he thinks his slow start in 2003 may have been brought on by redshirting in 2002. He believes a one-year layoff can adversely affect a kicker.

''Probably mentally, more than physically,'' he said. ''There's nothing like being in a game. You can practice for two years but until you get in a game situation, you're not really going to be prepared.''


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