Burned booter

The All-American Football League supposedly will debut in the spring of 2009 after canceling its 2008 season. One former Tennessee Vol isn't holding his breath.

Place-kicker James Wilhoit, who ranks No. 2 on UT's all-time scoring list with 325 points, isn't sure the AAFL will recover from the financial uncertainties that caused postponement of what was to be its inaugural season.

"There's no way to really know," said Wilhoit, who is working 30 hours per week at his alma mater while pondering his football future. "Obviously, a lot of the players are going to be a little bit gun-shy.

"Last year (2007) they said it was going to happen and this year they got all the way up to the point of it happening, then kind of reneged on the deal."

Wilhoit is one of the premier kickers in Vol history, having connected on 18 of 22 field-goal tries as a senior in 2006. He just missed making the roster of the Baltimore Ravens a year ago and saw the AAFL as an opportunity to continue his career. He agreed to a contract with Team Tennessee, but saw the league – and his career – put on hold mere days before training camp was to begin in March. Like most players, Wilhoit was shocked.

"We found out the same time everybody else did," he recalled. "The News-Sentinel came out with an article that at first was false. Then there was a week of negotiations, and we had to sit through that week wondering if we were going to play or if we weren't. Our lives were pretty much put on hold there for a while."

The timing of the announcement – coming so close to the start of preseason practice – was especially discouraging.

"Team Tennessee had everything set up for training camp," Wilhoit said. "We'd signed contracts and done all of those things. It really put us all back, especially when you spend three months of your life planning to do one thing, then, all of a sudden, it changed."

Still, there may be a silver lining. The preliminary work Wilhoit did to prepare for the AAFL season has geared up to make another run at earning a kicking job in the NFL.

"The only blessing for me is that I had to get prepared a lot earlier than I would have before," Wilhoit said. "At this point I feel like I'm in game shape right now."

The ex-Vol is just one week away from getting a second chance to showcase his skills for NFL teams.

"There's a regional NFL combine for free agents coming up May 4 in Texas," he said. "Adam Vinatieri (Colts), Jay Feely (Dolphins) and a couple of other NFL kickers have caught on that way.

"It's similar to the NFL Combine (for college seniors). You can go and be seen by scouts. All 32 teams get film and they get grade on you. After the draft that'll be something the teams hopefully will look at it. If they need a kicker, hopefully, I'll be at the top of their list."

Although he was spectacular as a Vol senior, Wilhoit is convinced he has improved significantly since then.

"I think I'm a better kicker now than I was in college," he said. "I got to work with Matt Stover (Baltimore Ravens kicking coach) and a kicking coach in Washington D.C., who really helped refine my technique.

"I feel like I'm kicking off better than I was before. Even field goals I feel like I'm kicking better. It's just about getting an opportunity."

If Wilhoit's NFL dream doesn't materialize, there's always a chance he'll get another "opportunity" with the AAFL next spring.

"It's a tough situation," he said. "Obviously, they would have to come in with a very impressive deal for me to come back and play in that league. Hopefully, I can catch on with an NFL team before that."

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