Wisconsin's special teams kick back

Badgers specialists Ken Debauche, Taylor Mehlhaff and company are close on and off the practice field.

MADISON - As Wisconsin native and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo exquisitely demonstrated this past winter, a lot more goes into a successful kick than simply a strong, accurate leg. The snapper, the holder, the kicker: All three must be on the same page and function as one.

It's certainly a difficult task, but one that is made much easier when all three contributors are on the same page, and even more so when they're all great friends.

"Obviously we're guys who hang out all the time [during practice]," kicker Taylor Mehlhaff said. "We're good friends off the field too. It's nice because during the game, I'm kind of there to help [punter Ken DeBauche], and he's there to help me out too."

Aside from handling punting duties, DeBauche also serves as the team's primary holder for field goals and extra points.

For someone who was on the kicking end of the equation in high school, the transition to holding was a process for DeBauche.

"I was a kicker in high school, so I wasn't able to hold for myself," DeBauche joked. "It was something that when we work so much together, it's only natural that the punter would be the one holding for the kickers … because we can get so much work in.

"My redshirt freshman year I held for [former UW kicker] Mike Allen, and he was a right-footed kicker. I felt pretty comfortable with that, then Taylor came along and I kind of had to start all over."

The third portion of the kicking equation is the long snapper. Duties are split between Steve Johnson (punts) and Dave Peck (field goals).

After coming to UW as a linebacker, Johnson was quickly thrust into the backup longsnapping role as a freshman and eventually was elevated to first-team after former Badger Matt Katula graduated. Johnson has thoroughly enjoyed the position change.

"I love it now, I think it's great," Johnson said. "Practicing for two periods [out of a 22-period practice] is nice. You get to do a lot of individual work.

"Most of our practice is just our group of special teams guys, and we have real good camaraderie."

That camaraderie comes from a lot of time spent on the sidelines during practice working together and killing time. The group even has come up with some creative ways to pass the time between live practice sessions.

"We have all kinds of little games and jokes and stuff," Mehlhaff said. "We started this one game where we have codes and everything to talk about famous athletes … just to kill time at practice; you got to come up with stupid stuff."

Still, the unit puts in a lot of hard work.

"A lot of people don't see the time we actually put in, the tons of time we put in during the summer and in the offseason," Mehlhaff said. "After conditioning we go up and kick for an hour and a half, two hours."

All that hard work has paid dividends for the Badgers in the form of a very solid kicking game. Both Mehlhaff and DeBauche should be in the running for conference and national honors this coming season.

"What I focus on is what I need to do to get to those awards, those accolades," DeBauche said. "If I do what I have to do for my goals, those things will come."

Mehlhaff helped out the Wisconsin defense last year by pounding kickoffs into the end zone to give opponents a poor starting field position. After a change in the tee height last year, the NCAA has instituted a new rule again this year to move the kickoff spot back five yards to the 30-yard line.

The rule changes have motivated Mehlhaff to improve his already dominating kicking game.

"In the end, my goal is to play at the next level, and that's where they kick from," Mehlhaff said in reference to the NFL. "I'm kind of actually excited for it. I told [head coach Bret Bielema] that I think our team will definitely have an advantage over a lot of other teams.

"I went back and looked at the tapes [from last season] and a lot of the kicks that were touchbacks will probably still be touchbacks."

Practice notes Allen Langford and Ben Strickland both missed practice and watched in shorts. … On consecutive plays, safety Shane Carter nicely defended a downfield pass, then jumped in front of an Allan Evridge pass for an interception. … After a long pass along the sidelines was broken up by Carter, wide receiver Paul Hubbard crashed into the wall and lay in pain on the ground for several moments. He returned to practice a short while later. … And embattled defensive end Jamal Cooper returned to practice for the first time this spring after taking time away from the team to get his academics in order.

"I just wanted to make sure he understood what needed to get done, and he's done a tremendous job in the areas I thought he needed to improve upon," Bielema said.

Printed with permission from the Badger Herald


Badger Nation Top Stories