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Wilbur's Ready to Punt at an NFL Level Again

This is the second of two stories on the two young competitors for the Jets' punting job for the 2009 season.   

Eric Wilbur has heard it all before, having grown up in Orlando, Fla.

"I'm on the other side of town, away from the attractions, away from all the tourists," Wilbur told this week. "I'm Disney-ed out, man. I've been going there since I was 2."

He's 24 now and he's just come off a different kind of ride, a health roller-coaster. It's why Wilbur, competing with undrafted free agent T.J. Conley for the Jets' punting job, has been in the NFL haunted house ride the past two years.

"I was real excited to be with Jacksonville," he recalled of his signing in August 2007. "I went in for my tryout and performed really well. I kicked a lot. The next day I had a two-a-day practice and my leg was a little sore from that. I went to the trainer, told him what I was feeling. He said no big deal, ice it, stretch, stuff like that. On my way out to practice, I got called in and was released."

The next week he went to Detroit for a tryout and tore a groin muscle. End of 2007.

Then, as can happen with medical issues, as he rehabbed the groin and the weakened muscles around it, he suffered a sports hernia. End of 2008.

Had a long, strange trip, Eric? "Yes," he said, "I definitely have."

But before turning pro, all signs were pointing up for Wilbur. An all-state kicker/punter/receiver/safety, he chose to stay at home and concentrate on punting at the University of Florida. As a senior he set UF records for most punts and punting yardage, was second all-time with a 42.9 gross average and nailed 39 punts of 50-plus yards, all of which made him the Gators' first semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award.

And he impressed enough at a kicking camp in Las Vegas this year that Jets assistant general manager Scott Cohen, brought him back East for a tryout with special teams coach Mike Westhoff. Wilbur was signed April 15 and Reggie Hodges was waived 12 days later.

Wilbur is still working his way back into top form.

"Coach Westhoff's really helped me out to try and get back in the swing of things. I've been out for a while, so just getting back in the rhythm is the hardest part right now," he said, adding about his kicking at last weekend's rookie minicamp:

"I'm not hitting the ball as well as I should. I know my get-off times are real slow right now and I'm just getting back into my groove. And I feel like once I do, I should be able to win the job."

Wilbur clearly doesn't lack confidence in his potential. His experiences seem to have honed his edge to finally put all health issues behind him and go out and find his NFL niche.

They've even helped him provide some insights to Conley, coming off an outstanding senior season of punting for Idaho.

"T.J.'s a great kid," Wilbur said. "I'm more than happy to show him my experience in the NFL, which hasn't been much but it's been enough to learn something from."

It's interesting to note that Wilbur's had a few Jets connections along the way. He originally entered the pros as an undrafted free agent signed by Houston right after the 2007 draft but was let go before camp when the Texans decided to go with veteran Matt Turk — who was the Jets' punter in 2002.

And that Vegas kicking combine? It's the one put on by Louie Aguiar — the Green & White punter from 1991-93.

As for the New York metro area, it's starting to grow on Wilbur.

"No, I've never been up here. I've never been north of Virginia," he said. "I'm excited to go explore and kind of be a tourist myself. Hopefully I'll call it home for the next however many years."

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