Taylor Mehlhaff is not your average kicker.
For one, the Aberdeen (S.D.) Central standout rarely left the field, also starting at quarterback, safety and punter and even returning punts from time to time.
"We ended up 12-1, but we won two games in the last minute," Aberdeen Central football coach Mike Flakus said. "One he threw probably about a 25, 30-yard touchdown pass the last play of the game. And the other one, with about 53 seconds left, he had a 53-yard quarterback draw for a touchdown. And I think coaches like the fact that he's not a normal kicker. He's a competitor and he's been in that situation so many times."
Mehlhaff has been playing football since he was in fifth grade, but considers it his newest sport. Prior to high school, he was a six-sport athlete, also competing in baseball, basketball, soccer, track and hockey. Once he reached ninth grade, he gave up soccer and basketball but remained a four-sport, year-round athlete.
"I just got to that point where you had to make decisions," Mehlhaff said.
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound athlete has excelled at each of his chosen outlets, competing at a high level in hockey, baseball and track in addition to being one of the best prep kickers in the country and all-around strong football player. He is similarly versatile on the baseball field, playing pitcher, catcher, second base and shortstop. He finished fifth in the 400-meter dash in the Class AA state track meet last spring, with a time of 52.82, and also runs the 200 and the 400- and 800-meter relays.
Flakus, who is also Central's track coach, insists that while Mehlhaff is an impressive runner, baseball and hockey are the sports that are closest to his football exploits.
"I think he is a phenomenal baseball player and hockey player," Flakus said. "In fact when he was deciding what college to go to at first, originally, he looked at [somewhere] he could play football and baseball."
Mehlhaff's college decision boiled down to Wisconsin and Minnesota in the end, and had he chosen the Gophers, he likely would have played baseball there in addition to kicking. While at Wisconsin, he plans to look into amateur baseball options in the area for the spring and summer months.
"I figured it's kind of a bonus because football is my first priority but if I could do that, that would be a bonus," Mehlhaff said.
Mehlhaff, one of the most highly touted kickers in the country, will almost assuredly suit up with the Badgers when they take the field next fall. A dynamic kicker with excellent leg strength, Mehlhaff should assume the kickoff duties that were held by former Badger Scott Campbell in 2003. Mehlhaff could even push incumbent place kicker Mike Allen for field goal duties.
"That is what they are planning on having me do is kickoff right away," Mehlhaff said. "Allen, the field goal kicker, will be a senior and I'll compete for that spot. I'll work as hard as I can this summer to compete for that spot."
Allen struggled through a hip injury last fall that limited his range of motion and sapped his leg strength. He finished 9-for-12 on field goals, but was just 1-for-4 from 40 or more yards out. He made 32 of 34 extra point attempts.
Mehlhaff also fought through an injury, suffering a torn hip flexor in Central's second game of the season. He continued to play all over the field and finished 33-for-36 on extra points and 6-for-16 on field goals, including a long of 52 yards.
"The first game of the season when he was healthy, and this was before any muscle pull, before anything, he was 3-for-3, I think the longest was about a 40-yarder," Flakus said.
All three missed extra points were blocked, two due to poor snaps, according to Flakus. On the other, Mehlhaff said, "we were kicking and I fell right on my butt on the ice. People don't realize that half of our games were played in the snow."
The snow and the injured hip, though, did not keep Mehlhaff from impressing this fall. He earned all-state honors for the second consecutive season as a kicker and also ran for 365 yards, threw for 1,224 and notched 49 tackles. Central was undefeated until falling in the Class 11AA (largest schools) state championship game.
But while he was a weapon from whistle to whistle, Mehlhaff's greatest show was his immense leg strength.
"He kicked a 52 yarder in a downpour and I know it was still going up when it went across," Flakus said. "It was the most unbelievable kick I've ever seen.
"I know the Texas A&M coach was watching him and he was just watching his leg strength and he told me too, he said, ‘I've never seen anything like this.'"
In a game last fall Mehlhaff had to kickoff from his 20 following a safety. "And they have a very good returnman sitting at the 10," Flakus said. "And you just worry about that situation. Well, Taylor put it in the end zone.
"Not very many times you see a standing ovation for a kicker but he got it all year long. It was pretty cool. And it just goes so high. I think that's what all the college guys like."
More than 90 percent of Mehlhaff's kickoffs resulted in touchbacks.
"It's really tough to drive the ball 80 yards," Flakus said. "So for us he was an unbelievable weapon."
Mehlhaff could also punt for the Badgers. He averaged a mere 31.7 yards per attempt this fall but, according to Flakus, his punts were almost never returned due to a hang time that college recruiters pegged at just more than four seconds.
"I'd say I'm a good high school punter, but I'm not a good punter at the college level," Mehlhaff said. "I have the leg strength to be and I need to have a lot more consistency. Down the line, next year or two, I'd love to punt too. We'll just have to see where I go with it.
Mehlhaff sees himself eventually becoming Wisconsin's kicker for field goals and kickoffs as well as the team's punter.
"(Punting is) something I'll definitely work on because I'd love to do all three," he said. "I just have to be a little more consistent with my ball, turning it over, and we'll see what happens.
"I hit my ball so high. When you hit the ball so high…you just need to get the ball turn over and that will add 10 yards to it and I just couldn't consistently get the ball to turn over. Once I start working on that a lot—I was working so hard on just the kicking part this summer and I didn't put in a lot of time in the punting. I've got the leg to be a good punter, though."
Nearly four years ago, Mehlhaff had to set aside two sports to focus on four. Now, there is not only one sport in mind, but a mere handful of positions.
"I wish I was a little taller and a little bit bigger so I could play QB and everything," Mehlhaff said. "I love the game in that aspect and I'd love to play QB too but I don't have the size to do it at this level."
"I don't know what he is going to do when he's only kicking," Flakus said. "I mean he's just going to be phenomenal."