Several times during the Big Ten media days Monday and Tuesday, University of Wisconsin football coach Barry Alvarez said his biggest worry was place kicker. That job will go to either sophomore Taylor Mehlhaff or walk-on redshirt freshman Adam Schober, both of whom struggled kicking field goals in the spring.
But Schober, who did a fairly good job on field goals during training camp last year, had surgery to repair damaged cartilage in his knee following spring ball, according to UW special teams coach Brian Murphy, and may not have been healthy throughout the spring.
And Sailer, a nationally renowned kicking instructor, has high praise for the progress Mehlhaff has made this summer.
"I have every confidence in the world that Taylor is going to have an All Big Ten type of season," Sailer said in an e-mail message Tuesday.
Last month Mehlhaff was one of 25 college kickers and punters to compete at a Chris Sailer kicking camp in Los Angeles. He finished second to Temple's Ryan Lux in each kicking aspect: overall, kickoffs and field goals. Some of the other kickers involved included Rutgers' Jeremy Ito, Northern Illinois' Chris Nendick and Arizona State's Jesse Ainsworth.
In the field goal competition, Mehlhaff made all 10 of his kicks in regulation, matching Lux by connecting on two kicks from 35, 40, 45, 50 and 55 yards away. Sailer recalled the two going back and forth four times from 55 yards out before Mehlhaff missed.
That is quite a performance, especially considering how erratic Mehlhaff was in practice at times during his first year at UW.
"He's pumped," Sailer said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "He's such a competitor. For him to not be successful at something last fall was hard for him."
"He was able to not only compete with these college guys, he was one of the two best that was there," Sailer said. "For him that was just awesome… He didn't want to leave the field."
Sailer has worked with Mehlhaff for the past three years.
"He's always gotten better," Sailer said. "But the largest transition that we've seen from him was from this past May to July.
"He got it. His ball flight, his ball rotation, everything about what he's doing right now… just way exceeds where he was before. I think that you are going to see a different guy than you saw in the spring come out this fall."
There is no question that Mehlhaff is brimming with talent. He was one of the top high school kickers in the nation as a senior at Aberdeen (S.D.) Central. As exhibited by his booming kickoffs, 18 of which resulted in touchbacks last year, Mehlhaff has plenty of leg strength.
But getting a field goal, of any distance, to go near the goal posts was a challenge for him last fall. Schober was significantly better in this regard in his first fall camp. But each of the place kickers vying to replace Mike Allen on field goals and extra points this year endured a tough spring.
"We were kind of disappointed with the consistency through the spring. Obviously it wasn't where we wanted it to be," Murphy said last month. "I don't expect by any stretch of the imagination that that's where we'll start this fall. I would anticipate that both those guys will start way ahead of where they ended the spring time."
Sailer can add fuel to Murphy's optimism. Last fall Mehlhaff sent film to Sailer every week. In January and May he served as an instructor at Sailer's camps for high school kickers and worked on his own kicking with Sailer and his staff.
"In January we said, ‘Hey, these are some small things,'" Sailer recalled last month. "You are not struggling because of large issues. You are struggling because of very small things that are easily correctable. And he fixed those things and he did very well in May when he came out."
When he arrived at UW, Mehlhaff had a tough time adjusting to kicking field goals without a tee. It was also the first time he had focused on one thing, rather than playing four positions in football while also starring in baseball, track and hockey.
"The transition from the tee to the ground was just difficult for him," Sailer said. "Obviously it showed in the fall. Whereas with kickoffs there is no transition. You are using the same tee."
Sailer said Mehlhaff's improvement has been part of the natural maturation process for a kicker. It was not a matter of if his field goal kicking would turn the corner, but when.
"He really wanted to get drills that would help him get better," Sailer said, regarding Mehlhaff's visits in January, May and July. "With most guys there kind of comes a time when the naturalness of the ground really just clicks. And it happens and it works for you when you mechanically can correct all the things that need to be adjusted from going to the tee to the ground….
"He worked real hard and it clicked for him."
As a kickoff specialist last season, Mehlhaff did an excellent job for the most part, though his performance waned at times late in the campaign. Sailer, though, said that Mehlhaff's kickoffs are now on par with some of the NFL kickers he works with.
"If he hit a small slump, more than anything else, it may have been the newness of a long season," Sailer said. "Maybe he didn't know how to handle the practice throughout that long of a year. But his kickoffs are pretty much untouchable (now)."
The real thrill for Mehlhaff, though, was clicking on field goals.
"I think he's anxious to get this year started and kind of show what he can do to people that haven't seen it yet," Sailer said. "I think the people in the Wisconsin area are going to be pleasantly surprised with what they're getting."