COLUMBIA — Last year, then-kicker Jeff Wolfert built a reputation for consistency. When Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel called on him for field goals, he delivered at a rate of 74 percent. In three years, Wolfert never missed an extra point.
Wolfert's departure as kicker might not stand out as much as the loss of quarterback Chase Daniel or receiver Jeremy Maclin, but in tight situations during the upcoming season, not having Missouri's leading scorer from the past three years could be significant.
Offensive coordinator David Yost, who also oversees the kicking game, says coaches are working with senior Tanner Mills to continue the kind of reliability Wolfert exhibited in his Tiger career.
"He's really progressed a lot from last season," Yost said of Mills. "Now we're just focusing on the consistency. He has the ability, the leg strength, the pop," Yost said.
Mills is followed on the depth chart by sophomore Grant Ressel and freshman Trey Barrow. Yost said coaches are not locked into having Mills do both kickoffs and field goals.
"We evaluate both (responsibilities) separately. He's definitely in the lead at that (kickoff) position," he said of Mills. "The field goal position, it's gotten a little tighter. If one guy's better than anybody else at one and the other guy's better at the other one, then we'll definitely split them up. We have no problem with that."
After playing both soccer and football at Rock Bridge High School, Mills didn't go straight to MU. He chose to continue his soccer career at Columbia College, where he was named NAIA national player of the week in September 2006.
"Coming out of high school, I had more soccer offers than I did football," he said. "I enjoyed soccer a lot coming through high school ... I've been playing soccer forever. Kind of looking back on my football career, I've realized I've enjoyed the atmosphere here."
Yost said the staff was well aware of Mills while he was at Rock Bridge.
"We attempted, when he was in high school, to try to get him to walk on here initially because we knew he had great leg strength," Yost said.
Mills said he wasn't unhappy at Columbia College but still entertained the possibility of playing football at Missouri. Before his junior year he transferred to MU and walked on to the football team.
"I always wanted to be a Tiger," he said. "If you play football in Columbia, you want to be a Tiger. All around Missouri, everybody wants to be a Tiger, I think. I thought about it a long time. It definitely wasn't an easy decision to come over and play football. It's been really good to me."
Mills said he learned a lot from Wolfert, with whom he played for one year.
"He definitely was consistent in everything he did. If I could take everything from Jeff and add it to what I know, I feel like I could fill his shoes ... almost," Mills said. "But I don't think anybody can be Jeff Wolfert. I can be Jeff Wolfert-esque."
Yost said it's important to remember Wolfert wasn't proven when he became the starting kicker in 2006.
"When Jeff first became our kicker, we didn't sit there thinking, 'Wow, he's going to make every kick he ever kicks,'" Yost said.
Yost said Mills is still developing but can reach his potential in the 2009 season.
"It got to the point (with Wolfert) where our players, our coaches, and then our fans said when he went out to kick, 'Well he's going to make it,'" Yost said. "It's a process. A lot of kickers never get to that mode. I think Tanner definitely has the ability."