Wilhoit Thrilled, Not Killed

Placekicker James Wilhoit and some Tennessee teammates watched in amazement when Oregon State's kicker missed three PATs in a one-point overtime loss to LSU two weeks ago.

''It was funny because we were in the hotel watching the game,'' Wilhoit said during a Tuesday afternoon interview. ''Kevin Simon, Kevin Burnett and some other guys were joking around and said, 'If you ever miss an extra point like that to cost us a game, we'll kill you.' ''

That memory must've flashed through Wilhoit's mind Saturday night, when he missed a PAT that left the Vols trailing Florida 28-27 with just 3:25 remaining in the final quarter. Wilhoit needed someone to bail him out, and someone did. The rescuer? James Wilhoit. The Vol kicker saved his own hide by booting a dramatic 50-yard field goal with 6 seconds left to give the Vols a 30-28 win.

Asked to describe his range of emotions from the 3:25 mark to the 0:06 mark, Wilhoit replied:

''It was crazy. The one thing I tried to control more than anything was my emotions. After missing the extra point I felt awful but I also knew that if I'd made the extra point it wouldn't have changed anything; I still had to go out there and kick that kick (game-winning field goal).''

The sophomore kicker said he's been seeing a sports psychologist for 2 1/2 years. As a result, he's developed an approach that keeps him focused strictly on the kick at hand.

''What we say is: You try to go 1-for-1 each time. Just worry about the one you have. It doesn't matter if you made a 50-yarder before that or missed an extra point. You just have to take them one at a time.''

So, after nailing the game-winning kick against archrival Florida, are his feet back on the ground yet?

''I think they are,'' Wilhoit said, grinning broadly. ''You definitely have to stay grounded. One thing I noticed is that after you miss an extra point, you see how quickly things can change.''

Wilhoit learned that lesson when he played back his cell-phone messages following the Florida game. The first message was a profanity-laced diatribe left moments after he missed the PAT. The same caller left a followup message after the game-winning field goal, however, and basically asked Wilhoit to ignore the earlier message.

''I'm very thankful I made that final kick,'' the young kicker said. ''But I'm also very aware of how quickly it (a player's popularity) can change.''

Watching Oregon State's kicker humiliated on national TV wasn't exactly Wilhoit's idea of a fun evening. In fact, he wishes he'd never witnessed it.

''I wish that Saturday we'd gotten to go to Boomsday or something like that, instead of watching kickers missing extra points,'' Wilhoit said. ''You don't want to get something like that in your head. Most people don't even think about missing an extra point, much less watching somebody miss three of 'em to cost somebody a game.''

There has been a rash of missed PATs this season. Why?

''I guess maybe people are taking it for granted,'' Wilhoit said. ''We have a lot of young kickers in the SEC right now, too. Ole Miss and Florida have the two oldest kickers. Besides them, you've got a lot of freshmen and sophomores.

''More than anything, though, you've got to concentrate on every kick and not take 'em for granted.''

Georgia used high-jumping Boss Bailey as a designated kick-blocker with great success a few years ago. Since then, other schools seem to be putting greater emphasis on defending PATs and field-goal tries. Asked if that might be partly responsible for the surprising number of missed conversions this fall, Wilhoit shook his head.

''It's not anything like that,'' he said. ''More than anything, it's just the kickers' concentration. You expect to make at least 98 percent of those.''

Wilhoit had made 50 in a row before Saturday night's miss. The misfire dropped him to precisely 98.39 percent.

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