Mehlhaff a kick above the rest

Badger kickoff specialist honed his skills under Chris Sailer's tutelage

Taylor Mehlhaff did something entirely out of character in Wisconsin's win over Arizona last week in Tucson. With less than four minutes left in the game and the Badgers clinging to a 9-7 lead, Mehlhaff booted a kickoff well to the left and out of bounds.

A personal foul penalty, though, forced the Wildcats to start the possession at their own 20, dampening the effect of Mehlhaff's mistake.

The Badgers' true freshman kickoff specialist, however, has rarely needed such good fortune.

Six of Mehlhaff's 12 kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks. Only five have been returned for an average of just 18 yards and Wisconsin's opponents' average starting field position following a kickoff is their own 21. Last season, opponents' averaged 21.3 yards per kick return and field position at their 29 following a kickoff. Only six of Wisconsin's 71 kickoffs last year resulted in touchbacks.

"He already has an NFL kickoff leg," said Chris Sailer, a two-time All-American punter and place kicker in his days at UCLA. "Consistency is still an issue. Every game he's put one or two that have not gone where he'd like to or not gone as high as he'd like to. I think that just comes with experience, just trying to hit the ball too hard."

Sailer is a proxy kicking coach for college kickers throughout the country, such as Mehlhaff, who have passed through his instructional camps. Few football teams at any level have coaches with an expertise in the finer points of kicking and Wisconsin is no different. So Mehlhaff and the rest of the Badgers' kickers and punters rely on each other for pointers. They study film with special teams coach Brian Murphy, who understands each kicker well enough to know when his mechanics have changed for the worse. Mehlhaff, though, takes it one step further and has Wisconsin ship his practice and game films to Sailer in Los Angeles.

"I get his kicking film from practice and I get his game film from kickoffs," Sailer said. "Once I get it I call them and we kind of talk about things and try to iron things out every week."

Mehlhaff attended four of Sailer's camps during his junior and senior years at Central High School in Aberdeen, S.D., where he was a four-sport star. With colleges reluctant to grant scholarships to kickers and punters, Sailer's camps, particularly the national kicking competitions he hosts, serve as a clearinghouse for college recruiters.

"With great athletes you can just tell that confidence," Sailer said. "Taylor kind of just jumped out right away because everything was so consistent, so smooth. He looked like he was kicking in his back yard."

Sailer began tutoring high school students when he was a freshman at UCLA in 1995.

"Leg strength wise, (Mehlhaff's) in the top five all-time," Sailer said. "I've seen thousands of kids. He really is one of those kids that is special with the ability to go the NFL."

Wisconsin recruited Mehlhaff to immediately take over the Badgers' moribund kickoff duties and to compete at place kicker behind senior Mike Allen. As expected Mehlhaff quickly took command of the kickoff duties. He has struggled, however, with the latter part of the equation as he makes the adjustment to the speed of the college game and the art of kicking off the ground.

Getting the timing down to a snap-hold-kick rhythm is the easier adjustment, one that Sailer said usually takes kickers about a month to nail down.

"I'm just about there. I feel like I'm real close," Mehlhaff said. "Just with more time I think I'll be even better at that."

The much harder lesson to learn, however, is how to kick field goals and extra points without the aid of a tee.

"It is probably the toughest transition you will ever make in kicking in your entire career," Sailer said.

Mehlhaff's field goals missed every way imaginable during Wisconsin's fall training camp. Media are not allowed to watch practice during the regular season.

"I've seen film on him and he's struggling a little bit but no more than any other freshman I've seen kicking," Sailer said. "If he was playing, I think he would be doing just fine. I think it is going to take him some time to get there but he is going to get there. It is just that time and experience that everybody needs. That first year is by far the most difficult year for a kicker."

"The change from kicking off a tee to off the ground just takes a lot of practice, a lot of time, and I'm slowly getting used to the rhythm and everything," Mehlhaff said.

Mehlhaff also had to adjust to kicking every day in practice. At Aberdeen Central he would practice place kicking just three times a week and only kicked off on game days and once a week in practice.

He kicked every other day over the summer to build his leg strength but the added work was not quite enough. Four days into his Wisconsin kicking career, Mehlhaff's leg was flat worn out. So Mehlhaff phoned his kicking mentor to ask for advice.

"I said, ‘What should I do to get my leg back under me?,'" Mehlhaff said. "(Sailer) said you just have to tell your coach you need a day off."

Mehlhaff relayed the message to his Badger coaches, who agreed that their young kickoff specialist needed a little rest and relaxation.

A few days later Mehlhaff put on a show in a practice at Camp Randall Stadium. His first kickoff landed at the back of the end zone, a 75-yard blast. His next attempt traveled even further, bounced once and collided with the guard rail that separates the south end zone bleachers from the playing field.

"He's got tremendous leg strength," Sailer said. "His contact with the football is something that is so hard to teach. He's just so natural at it. The way the ball pops off his foot, you can't compare it to many others."

Mehlhaff insists he does not yet have a powerful leg, "but I think I have a fast leg and I think I make good contact with the ball."

With time, Sailer said, Mehlhaff's already sound mechanics should improve and he will grow stronger.

"By his junior or senior year I can't see them ever bringing the ball out on him any more," Sailer said. "If he doesn't make any kind of mistake his ball could be 10 yards deep in the end zone every single time."

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