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August 18, 2013

Pitt GA experienced the twists of opportunity

Opportunity gets a decidedly one-sided portrayal.

Time after time, stories are spun about opportunity's self-presentation, and legends are born of the men and women who ride opportunity to great heights and achievements.

But there's another side to opportunity. Opportunity can slip away as quickly as it appeared, and Taylor Mehlhaff has seen both sides.

Multiple times.

After a career that placed him as one of the great kickers in Wisconsin history, Mehlhaff was selected by the New Orleans Saints in the sixth round of the 2008 NFL Draft. He made two of his three field goal attempts in the preseason and lasted until the final round of cuts before the Saints opted to keep veteran Martin Gramatica.

But Gramatica was placed on injured reserve with a groin injury in Week 5 of the regular season, and the Saints brought Mehlhaff back to New Orleans. For his first game, Mehlhaff and the Saints hosted the Oakland Raiders at the Superdome, and after a shaky start - he missed his first field goal attempt and booted a kickoff out of bounds - Mehlhaff settled in to make field goals of 31 and 44 yards and converted four PAT's.

The next week he was only called upon once, as the Saints lost to the Carolina Panthers 30-7, but the pivotal game in Mehlhaff's career - and one of the pivotal moments in his life - came the following week, when the Saints went to London to face the San Diego Chargers.

Mehlhaff opened the game in good fashion by making a 23-yard field goal to give New Orleans and early lead. But early in the second quarter, he took the field for a kick he still hasn't forgotten. Drew Brees had just connected with Devery Henderson on a touchdown pass to give the Saints a 9-3 lead when Mehlhaff came out for the PAT. Prior to that kick Mehlhaff was a perfect 5-of-5 on PAT's in the regular season and had converted all four he attempted in the preseason. He had also made 145 PAT's at Wisconsin, giving him more than enough experience with the objective.

But on that afternoon at Wembley Stadium, it went awry, as Mehlhaff's attempt went off the top of the upright. He bounced back to make four more PAT's that day and the Saints beat the Chargers 37-32, but as fortune would have it, New Orleans was scheduled for an off week after the trip to London, and the team took that extra time to audition new kickers.

One of the kickers who tried out was an undrafted free agent from Oklahoma named Garrett Hartley, and the Saints signed Hartley after his workout and released Mehlhaff. There's no shame in losing a job to a player like Hartley, who went on to set an NFL record for consecutive field goals and was a key piece of the Saints' run to the Super Bowl XLIV championship, but that's little consolation for a competitor like Mehlhaff.

"You go somewhere and you think you're going to be playing there for quite awhile. It can be taken from you just like that.

"I worked so hard in high school to get to where I was in college, and I always felt like I was going to keep going to show I was one of the top guys in the NFL; it's crazy how it gets taken from you."

Opportunity had presented itself to Mehlhaff and just as quickly departed from his grasp, despite his best efforts to hold on. Mehlhaff, a native of Aberdeen, South Dakota, spent time with the Minnesota Vikings and kicked for a season in the UFL, but by the end of 2010 he needed to find a new direction.

Once again, Mehlhaff's relationship with opportunity took another turn. After his years at Wisconsin - where he earned All-America and All-Big Ten honors - and in the NFL, Mehlhaff began getting requests from coaches and parents. They knew his ability as a kicker and, through interacting with him, were well aware of his charismatic, outgoing and driven demeanor, and they wanted him to work with younger kickers.

So Mehlhaff went for it. He started Taylor Mehlhaff Kicking LLC and began instructing kickers and operating clinics for kickers. His students included Tulane kicker Cairo Santos, who converted 21-of-21 field goal attempts last season en route to winning the Lou Groza Award, presented annually to the nation's top kicker.

Last summer, Mehlhaff was at the University of Tennessee assisting with that school's specialist prospect camp, and Derek Dooley and his staff were so impressed that they offered him a position as a special teams quality control assistant. Mehlhaff took the position, and while he was initially unsure if he wanted to go into coaching, he decided to pursue the profession after the Dooley staff was let go this past offseason.

That led Mehlhaff back to Paul Chryst, who was the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin when Mehlhaff was the Badgers' placekicker, and it didn't take long for the connection to be made.

"He was a guy that I admired and respected a lot when he was playing, just the mental toughness that he had," Chryst said of Mehlhaff. "It's great having him around. He's a sharp guy, he brings good energy."

"When [Chryst] found out I was looking to go somewhere, I think he was pretty excited to get me here," Mehlhaff said. "I had a couple opportunities to go to some other places, and I felt good about this. With the group of guys that I know here, it's more of a family-type feel. It's a close-knit group."

Now Mehlhaff is on the Pitt staff as a special teams graduate assistant. He is assisting in a variety of special teams areas, but his focus is on working directly with the kickers and punters. That's particularly helpful for Pitt, since the Panthers will have two scholarship specialists on the roster this season in kicker Chris Blewitt and punter Ryan Winslow.

It's a perfect role for Mehlhaff and one Pitt can benefit from.

"In a lot of places, that's a neglected position, and Taylor has really, really good knowledge of the kicking part," Chryst said.

The problem is, college coaching staffs don't typically have room for a dedicated kicking coach above the graduate assistant level. As such, Mehlhaff knows his options at the college level are limited. But in his ongoing back-and-forth with opportunity, Mehlhaff intends to make a bit of his own and branch out.

"A lot of people have told me I have a niche because I know kicking and punting, where a lot of special teams coordinators don't have that background; what I really want to do now is dive into another position at the college level. A lot of special teams guys, you see them with running backs or safeties or whatever, and that's really what I need to do right now. I need to do another position and keep learning that stuff.

"I want to just gather as much info and sit in as many meetings as I can and absorb stuff."

So Mehlhaff has been poking his head into position rooms as often as he can at Pitt. He is constantly soaking in the teaching of Pitt's current assistant coaches, and as he accumulates that knowledge, he is confident that he can put it in tandem with his natural abilities - even beyond kicking - to excel as a college coach.

"The one thing I do really well is I know how to work with kids and I know how to coach; from an offensive and defensive standpoint, I need to get into the X's and O'x part of it."

Like any competitor, Mehlhaff, who will turn 28 next week, still thinks he's got it. His website - tmkicking.com - has videos of him booming a 77-yard field goal and bending kicks through the uprights from the back line of the end zone. But while the fire is still burning, he seems to mostly have adjusted his mindset toward the work he can do on the sidelines.

"I've shifted into the coaching thing," he says. "I do still kick a couple days a week, and that's the frustrating thing, because field goal-wise, honestly, I feel that I'm as good as I've ever been. But when I do something, I do it 100%, and I'm excited to have the opportunity here.

"I think Coach Chryst, from knowing him before and seeing how he does things, he's going to be successful here. He's going to get things going and I want to be a part of that."

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