If Taylor Mehlhaff had his druthers, he’d be in the midst of another preseason training camp right now, competing for a spot as an NFL starting kicker somewhere. Anywhere, really. Kansas City. Denver. Seattle. If a team reached out, he would gladly answer the call.
But Mehlhaff, a two-time All-Big Ten kicker at Wisconsin in 2006 and 2007, has learned things don’t always work out the way we plan. Instead, he has found a different path, staying close to football while staying ready in case another call ever comes.
“I still kick a couple days a week,” Mehlhaff said by phone this week. “To be honest, field goal-wise, I’m probably just as good as I’ve ever been.”
Mehlhaff, 27, has imparted his knowledge and expertise as a kicker to a younger generation over the past few summers by holding kicking camps for high schoolers and college athletes across the country. In July, for example, he traveled to Madison, Wis., Minneapolis, Appleton, Wis., Chicago and New Orleans for various camps.
Those camps have kept his name top of mind for college coaches, and it has helped him land jobs at the University of Tennessee last season and now the University of Pittsburgh. A year ago, he ran Tennessee’s summer specialists camp and was asked to stay on staff as a special teams quality control coach. When Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley was fired in November, Mehlhaff found himself looking for work.
He was then hired on as a specialists coach at Pitt, where former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst now serves as head coach. In the past week, he finally moved with his fiancée, Ashlyn, from Knoxville to Pittsburgh.
“I’m going to basically be a graduate assistant for coach Chryst over here coaching the specialists,” Mehlhaff said. “Basically, I’ll be like an assistant special teams guy. We don’t have a special teams coordinator, so I’m kind of the guy that is the glue holding the phases together, I guess.”
Mehlhaff is the most recent former Badgers player to join Chryst’s staff in some capacity. Brian Calhoun and Ross Kolodziej serve as assistant strength and conditioning coaches, Brooks Bollinger is the quarterbacks coach and Nate Tice is a graduate assistant.
“I think at Pitt it’s a really good environment,” Mehlhaff said. “Really good guys. It’s turned into kind of Wisconsin East over there with all the people we have. It’s pretty cool.”
While Mehlhaff is grateful for the opportunity to coach at the college level, he still believes he has something to offer to NFL teams. It was not all that long ago, after all, when he was one of the best kickers in college football.
During his three-year college career, Mehlhaff made 145 of 148 extra points (98.0 percent) and 50 of 65 field goals (76.9 percent). His 21 field goals made in 2007 ranked first in the Big Ten. Mehlhaff then was taken in the sixth round of the 2008 NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints at No. 178 overall. He was the first of two kickers selected in the entire draft.
Mehlhaff was cut after training camp but was brought back to replace injured kicker Martin Gramatica in Week 6 of the 2008 season. In three games, he made 3 of 4 field goal attempts and 9 of 10 extra points. But he also missed an extra point during a 37-32 victory against San Diego in London, which prompted Saints coach Sean Payton to look elsewhere for kickers when he thought Mehlhaff’s confidence was wavering.
According to Mehlhaff, the circumstances surrounding his departure from New Orleans were particularly frustrating. He said he tore a quad muscle in June before training camp, which hindered his development.
“The whole month leading up to it I wasn’t able to kick at all,” he said. “I basically went to training camp without hitting a ball for four and a half weeks.”
Less than a week before the Chargers game in October, the Saints released punter Steve Weatherford, who was Mehlhaff’s holder, and brought in punter Ben Graham, who was not used to holding for a left-footed kicker like Mehlhaff.
“I had like two days to work with him,” Mehlhaff said. “I’m sitting there doing snaps in the hotel room with this guy so he can learn how to hold left handed.
“By no means was it his fault. We just didn’t have a great warm-up. As a rookie, that’s something where you have to be so confident in your snapper or your holder. That’s something you work on in OTAs, minicamp, training camp. That’s something you work on non-stop with those guys.”
In 2009, the Minnesota Vikings cut Mehlhaff during training camp in what proved to be his final NFL opportunity. In 2010, Mehlhaff kicked for the Hartford Colonials of the United Football League and made 10 of 13 field goals. But a year later, the Colonials folded. Since that time, Mehlhaff said he had received offers from arena league teams but noted it didn’t suit his kicking abilities.
Mehlhaff said he hoped to build a resume that will help him become a college football or NFL coach some day. And he still derives great pleasure from helping other kickers improve their skills. He has worked with Badgers specialists Drew Meyer, Jack Russell and Kyle French in recent years.
Still, if an NFL team should ever find itself in a pinch and in need of his services, he wouldn’t hesitate.
“What I’ve found as I get older, especially coaching these guys and doing lessons and camps every day, I’m constantly practicing the mental side of it,” Mehlhaff said. “I’ve found that I don’t have to kick as much when I’m doing this stuff.
“It has made me a better kicker in the long run. I’m still hoping to get an opportunity. I’ve done some of the free agent combines. The longer you’re out, the harder it is to get back in.”