MADISON -- Out of Aberdeen Central High School in 2004, Taylor Mehlhaff was the top-ranked kicker in the nation, just ahead of current New Orleans Saints kicker Garrett Hartley. After four years at Wisconsin, Mehlhaff was the first kicker taken in the 2008 NFL Draft, as the Saints made him their sixth-round pick at No. 178 overall.
After three games with New Orleans that included a missed field goal and a missed extra-point attempt, Mehlhaff found himself without a job. Shortly after the 2008 season he signed with the Minnesota Vikings, but Mehlhaff was cut before the start of the season.
Following a year out of football in which he started Taylor Mehlhaff Kicking LLC, which runs camps for aspiring kickers, Mehlhaff now finds himself back in the game. For the 2010 season, Mehlhaff signed with the Hartford Colonials of the UFL, earning one of five starting kicking positions in the league.
Between strategy meetings last week, BadgerBlitz.com caught up with the former Badger. The following is a question and answer with Mehlhaff.
How's it feel to be back on the football field in the UFL?
Mehlhaff: It's been good, man. It's a little bit different than the NFL in certain aspects of it, but really, I've really enjoyed it. The talent that's here, the people that are playing, are guys that have been in and out of the NFL. The Omaha team probably has the most veterans; there's guys that have been Pro Bowl guys and all of a sudden you get released or you get hurt and everyone's trying to get back in the NFL.
There's really a lot of talent. When you get some of these younger guys that get released, practices almost seem -- especially in training camp -- like guys are competing so hard because guys are hungry, they're trying to get back in the NFL. Whereas, in the NFL, it's just guys at times seem like they go through the motions.
It's the same thing with the coaches too. The coaches have all been in the NFL and for whatever reason, their units didn't perform well and now they're down here. They're all trying to get back in the NFL as well. So it's kind of a thing where everybody is trying to reprove themselves a little bit.
How did you end up finding yourself on the Hartford roster this season?
Mehlhaff: You know, it was tough trying to get this because the way you look at it is, if you're not one of the 32 guys in the NFL, basically these are the next five spots. There's five teams here, and as far as the Canadian league goes, this is a much better situation than that because the amount of crossover between guys coaching in the NFL and UFL. Moneywise, this was also a much better situation than the Canadian league.
So, if you're a free agent kicker out there, everyone was fighting to be one of these five guys. I was brought in with workouts for different teams, performed well and was able to get an opportunity here with the Colonials. So really, I feel pretty blessed and fortunate to get an opportunity with these guys.
This league really important for everybody here trying to get back in the NFL, but even more so than any other position, it's a great opportunity for a kicker or punter because come late November when our season is done, there are going to be plenty of NFL teams out there where either the kicker or punter gets hurt or guys are struggling like you saw last year in the NFL.
An NFL team would much rather sign one of the five guys in this league that are playing week in and week out, practicing every single day, than sign a guy off the street. Last year, there were four kickers in the UFL, two of the four are in the NFL right now: the Redskins kicker [Graham Gano] and the Falcons kicker [Matt Bryant]. It's a great opportunity for a kicker or punter.
Did you have any kind of options in the NFL before signing with Hartford?
Mehlhaff: I did. I heard from several teams throughout the NFL but for me, I didn't want to go in and just be a camp leg, and sit behind a veteran knowing that I'm not going to be the guy. In this stage of my career right now, I need to be playing, after I was released by New Orleans, I had my preseason games with the Vikings, but I needed to get a full season under my belt where I could prove to teams that, 'Hey, you can trust me as a field goal guy.'
So I wanted to get into this league and prove myself in a full season in a developmental league. But actually, the day we reported here, Seattle tried getting me to go there because Olindo Mare had just tweaked a groin or something like that. They tried signing me for the preseason games.
The way I looked at it was, I could go there and hopefully do well, perform well and get an opportunity if maybe another team picks me up after they release me, or I could stay here and keep working my butt off and try to have a great season and then hopefully there will be multiple opportunities. And I'm glad I stayed.
What would you say are the best and worst aspects of the UFL?
Mehlhaff: Well, just naturally, the UFL doesn't have the budget that the NFL does. When you're in the NFL, you're taken care of so well. Here, it's not like that. They put us up in a hotel, they pay for our living and food and everything, which is nice. But just little things like not having our own locker room, we're at a hotel, so we kind of have a big convention room as our locker room.
When we go over to practice, we have a beautiful FieldTurf field that we practice on, but on days that it rains, you can't go inside in the bubble or you can't go in the indoor facility. In the NFL, all those things you kind of just take for granted, all those things are just kind of there for you. Whereas here, you're kind of more on your own with stuff. At practice, when I'm warming up, I'm shagging my own footballs because we don't have 15 equipment guys that are helping out with everything.
But I feel so fortunate to be doing this. I get to make a living going and playing football, so when the meals aren't as good or when things aren't quite like you're used to, sometimes you've just got to look at it like, 'Man, are you kidding me? I get to go out here and workout and kick a football for a couple hours and that's the way I make a living.'
On the positive side, everything's maybe just a little bit more laid back than in the NFL setting. The schedule is only eight weeks as well, with a couple bye weeks in there, so it's nice. It's easy to take care of your body. I've enjoyed this area too with Hartford, Conn., being right between Boston and New York.
You've said it's everyone's goal, but just to be clear, is your goal to get back to the NFL?
Mehlhaff: Oh yeah, definitely. For me, I think I look at it and why everyone is here, whether it's coaches or players, everyone's goal is to get back in the NFL. I feel like if you take care of business week in and week out, day in and day out in practice, if you have a solid season here, I think there will be plenty of opportunities that present themselves at the next level.
Every team sees every single one of our games and practices. Teams are paying attention, I know that because I've talked to some of the teams and they've said, 'We're going to be keeping an eye on you.' So, you just worry about taking care of business here, and that's why I didn't jump on the Seattle opportunity.
I feel like this is what I have to do to reprove myself again. I think I've gotten better, and it's been good for me to develop a little bit more here.
Are you still planning on doing the kicking camps?
Mehlhaff: Oh yeah, absolutely. Every single week I get a handful of e-mails from parents and kids asking about private lessons, so that's definitely something that I'll do in the offseason throughout the winter and spring and summer. I'll do quite a few camps again as well as private lessons.
It went really well last year, I was actually surprised. Between my camps and private lessons, I probably saw over 200 kids, which really is pretty awesome. I've heard nothing but good things from the parents and the students.
It's something that I enjoy doing, and I think it's made me a better kicker as well, because when I'm sitting here, breaking these kids' techniques down, it helps me hold myself accountable. It's like mental practice for me.
What is the process like if an NFL team were to have interest in you?
Mehlhaff: If an NFL team wanted you bad enough, they can pay out, I think it's $150,000, and they can grab us from our teams. Say some random team calls and says, 'Hey, we need Taylor right now,' and that could happen, they could let you go. But I don't think that's something that will really happen.
It's a yearly contract here, and to be honest, if I could play here for years, I really would. I hope this league does a great job and continues to build. It's supposed to expand to I think eight or 10 teams next year. I would love to play in this league as long as I can. If an NFL opportunity doesn't present itself again, I would love to play here for sure.
How does the pressure in the UFL compare for you as a kicker to what you faced in the NFL and in college at Wisconsin?
Mehlhaff: For me, as a kicker, it's always the same just because, at the professional level, you're expected to make kicks. That's the bottom line. Maybe it's not the exact same pressure as it is in the NFL because there's not as much money involved, but the bottom line is, if I want to get to the next level, I expect myself to be perfect.
I don't think I feel any different when I walk out on the field here than I did when I was with New Orleans or at Wisconsin.