TIFFIN, Iowa — Everything about this place screams quintessential Iowa.
The rolling crop fields that get more picturesque as the sun sets. The main drag through town, U.S. Highway 6, is dotted with houses and small businesses. Neighborhoods feature large, open lots and kids playing in backyards on a crisp, early-fall night.
Tiffin, Iowa — population 3,670, 10 miles west of Iowa City on Interstate 80 — isn’t the town a Power Five college football coach would expect to find a potentially game-wrecking edge rusher. But T.J. Bollers, in many ways, defies expectation.
The University of Wisconsin won a heated recruiting battle for Bollers, one that saw him pull in offers from some of the best football programs in the country. Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Alabama and most of the Big Ten were in the mix, as was close-to-home pick Iowa State.
Speaking after his Clear Creek-Amana High School squad trounced visiting Benton Community last week, Bollers said being around the Badgers felt like home.
“The first time me and my mom visited, we had an amazing visit. After that, when we would go back, we kept learning more and more about the school,” Bollers said. “Coach (Bobby) April, he’s an amazing coach, and coach (Paul) Chryst is fantastic, very personable guy. He’s someone I’m looking forward to spending three, four years around.”
At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, Bollers’ body sets him apart on the football field.
Benton had no answer for Bollers last week, even though he was dealing with lower-back issues that took away some of the explosiveness for which he’s known. One first-quarter series saw Bollers tally three consecutive tackles — plowing through a double-team on the first, staying home to cut down a reverse attempt on the second, and stopping a run well short of a first down on the third.
He also moved in from tight end to play tackle for the Clippers, who had injuries along the offensive line.
His blend of size, quickness and athleticism makes him a player coaches project as an every-down threat, just as capable of making a play in the run game as he is rushing the passer.
“He’s a kid that’s had the physical tools ever since he started playing high school football, but he’s really worked hard to improve his skills and improve his body,” CCA coach Gabe Bakkers said. “He loves competing … He’s a very positive kid, very charismatic. He’s fun to be around.”
Ranked a four-star recruit by 247Sports, ESPN and Rivals, Bollers has been a Badgers target since 2018. He attended a camp on campus last summer, and was at Camp Randall Stadium last season to watch UW beat Michigan in September and Iowa in November. He also visited the campus in March before the NCAA shut down in-person recruiting due to COVID-19.
Bollers, who wants to major in engineering or a field of biology, said UW’s academic reputation was a major factor in his decision to commit, and why schools like California and Northwestern were among his top choices. The recruiting process also challenged him to stay grounded as he was flooded with college attention.
“My family was always preaching to me to stay humble. I feel like my family did a good job of keeping my humble throughout this entire thing because it’s really easy to get ahead of yourself and think you’re all that when you’re a national recruit,” Bollers said. “So just being humble and staying true to who I am is how I handled it.”
With his team up 42-3 at halftime, Bollers and Bakkers, who played at Iowa State, decided to keep him on the sideline in the second half. By unofficial count, he finished with six tackles, including a sack.
Even through the pain, Bollers never stopped moving. That’s something that applies to all of his sports. He was a key piece to CCA’s basketball and baseball teams, both of which qualified for the state tournament his junior season. He also competes in track and field, primarily as a thrower, but he’s run in the 200-meter dash as well.
In the free time he has away from practices, he works at Tiffin’s Fareway grocery store.
“He’s just a great kid in our community. I’m really proud of his leadership the past couple of years. That’s the thing that’s grown the most, both as a player and as a person,” Bakkers said.
Bollers is part of a 2021 recruiting class that’s on pace to be the Badgers’ best in the internet recruiting rankings era. With 19 commitments, UW’s class is in the top 15 nationally on 247Sports, ESPN and Rivals. Bollers is active on social media celebrating new recruits joining the class and encouraging others to follow him to Madison.
He says he wants Badger fans to know he’s as excited to don a UW uniform as they’ve shown him they are to have him.
“They’re going to get a fast, energetic player. I’m going to play with my guys, be excited with my guys, make sure that I’m keeping them pumped up and we’re going to work hard when we get there,” Bollers said. “This 2021 class is coming. We’re ready.”
Get to know the Badgers' 2021 recruits
Get to know the Wisconsin Badgers' 2021 football recruiting class
JP Benzschawel, an offensive lineman out of Grafton, was the first recruit in the Badgers’ 2021 class, continuing the family tradition at UW.
Benzschawel’s brothers, Beau (2015-18) and Luke (2016-19) played offensive line and tight end, respectively, for the Badgers. His father, Scott (1983-87) and uncle Eric (1988-92) also played football for UW.
Benzschawel is one of the top-ranked offensive tackles in the country. A four-star recruit on 247sports, and ESPN, and a three-star on Rivals, Benzschawel is a top-200 recruit nationally by 247sports and ESPN.
Jackson Acker, a running back from Verona, committed to the Badgers soon after receiving an offer in June 2019.
UW was Acker’s first scholarship offer after his sophomore season, but he used it as momentum for a strong junior campaign at Verona High School. He was a first-team running back on the Wisconsin State Journal’s All-Area team, rushing for 929 yards and 11 touchdowns in eight games.
Acker is a three-star recruit according to 247sports, Rivals and ESPN.
Deacon Hill, a quarterback from Santa Barbara, Calif., committed to the Badgers in July 2019.
A 6-foot-4, 225-pound, pro-style prospect, Hill was part of wave of recruiting commitments for UW. Hill turned down offers from Kansas State and Nevada in favor of the Badgers.
Hill turned heads at an Elite 11 regional camp in California with his big arm and deep throws. He is the lone quarterback thus far in the 2021 class, and the 2020 class added just one in walk-on Daniel Wright.
Hill is listed as a three-star recruit by 247sports, Rivals and ESPN.
Loyal Crawford, a running back from Eau Claire, Wis., committed to the Badgers in August 2019.
A fast, shifty and explosive back, Crawford was limited to five games as a junior due to injury. Still, he tallied 671 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in that span. He was one of the first freshmen to suit up for a varsity game at Eau Claire Memorial High School.
Crawford — listed at 6-foot and 190 pounds — is a three-star recruit per 247sports, Rivals and ESPN.
UW’s scholarship offer the first Division I offer Crawford had received, according to multiple outlets.
Riley Mahlman, an offensive lineman from Lakeville, Minn., committed to the Badgers after watching them defeat Michigan at Camp Randall Stadium in September 2019.
Mahlman is ranked as a four-star prospect by 247sports and ESPN, and a three-star by Rivals. He’s ranked as the top recruit in the state of Minnesota by 247sports and ESPN, and the No. 2 Minnesota product by Rivals. UW beat out Ohio State, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan State, Florida and others for Mahlman.
With Mahlman and 2020 linebacker Kaden Johnson, the Badgers secured the top-ranked recruit out of Minnesota in consecutive years.
The 6-foot-7, 265-pound tackle also played tight end for Lakeville South High School.
Bryan Sanborn, an inside linebacker from Lake Zurich, Ill., committed to UW in December 2019.
Sanborn, the younger brother of Badgers inside linebacker Jack Sanborn, is a three-star recruit according to 247sports, Rivals and ESPN.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound prospect had a handful of Power Five offers, including Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska. Bryan’s late father, Paul, played football at Oregon.
Ayo Adebogun, a linebacker/defensive end hailing from Mequon, committed to the Badgers in December 2019.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder was a second-team all-state selection by the Wisconsin Associated Press as a junior, a season in which he tallied 16 sacks and 75 total tackles.
The Homestead High School product is a three-star recruit per 247sports, Rivals and ESPN.
Hunter Wohler, a safety out of Muskego, orally committed to UW just before Christmas 2019.
Rated by multiple recruiting sites as the best or second-best prospect in Wisconsin in his class, Wohler helped Muskego to an unbeaten record and a WIAA Division I state championship as a junior. Wohler had 122 total tackles and two interceptions as a junior, and he was named the state’s Associated Press' player of the year.
Wohler — listed at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds — is rated as a four-star recruit by 247sports, Rivals, and ESPN. He’s ranked as the No. 298 overall prospect in the 2021 class by ESPN.
Jake Chaney, a linebacker out of Lehigh Acres, Fla., committed to the Badgers in March 2020.
The 6-foot, 200-pound prospect is a three-star recruit according to 247sports and Rivals.
He was the District 7A player of the year last season after recording 100 tackles as a junior. Jake Chaney’s father, James, is his coach at Lehigh Senior High School and played at Florida State from 1988-1991.
Chaney was the third linebacker and ninth overall recruit in the 2021 class.
Antwan Roberts announced in April that he’d be attending the University of Wisconsin.
The 6-foot-1, 189-pound back is a three-star recruit per Rivals and 247sports.
UW was the only Big Ten program to offer Roberts a scholarship. He was also considering offers from Cincinnati, Duke, Kentucky, Louisville, Memphis, Missouri and Vanderbilt. He also played defensive back for his high school, Pope John Paul II.
Jack Pugh, a tight end out of Hilliard, Ohio, announced his commitment to the Badgers in late May
Pugh — ranked a four-star recruit by 247Sports and ESPN, and a three-star prospect by rivals — is ranked in the top 12 of tight ends in his class. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound prospect had scholarship offers from more than 20 programs, including a majority of the Big Ten Conference schools.
Pugh has the prototypical size to play as an on-the-line tight end, but has also split out as a receiver often through his high school career. A standout basketball player, Pugh also showed explosiveness as a defensive end for Hilliard Bradley High School.
Peterson, a three-star outside linebacker/defensive end from Akron, Ohio, committed to UW on June 1, 2020.
He was one of the Badgers’ top targets on defense since the spring of 2019. He tallied 21 sacks in his junior season at Archbishop Hoban, and chose the Badgers over offers from Alabama, Michigan, West Virginia and more.
247Sports, Rivals and ESPN all rate Peterson — a 6-foot-3, 235-pounder — as a three-star prospect. He’s the first linebacker in the 2021 class.
Mike Jarvis, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound lineman out of Medford, N.J., announced his commitment to the Badgers on June 3, 2020.
A three-star prospect on 247Sports and a two-star per Rivals, Jarvis has potential to play as a defensive or offensive lineman, although he’s been primarily recruited for his ability on defense.
Jarvis picked UW over scholarship offers from Duke, Florida State, Indiana, Nebraska, Princeton, Rutgers and others.
Outside linebacker/defensive end TJ Bollers added to a hot recruiting streak for the Badgers when he committed in June 2020.
Rated a four-star recruit by 247Sports, ESPN and Rivals, Bollers held offers from the likes of Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Penn State and most of the Big Ten. He narrowed his choices to Alabama, California, Iowa State, Nebraska, Northwestern and UW before making his decision..
Bollers — listed at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds — is ranked the 98th overall recruit in the country by Rivals, 147th by 247Sports and 200th by ESPN.
Hallman, a 6-foot cornerback out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., tweeted his commitment to the Badgers in late June 2020.
Hallman, ranked a four-star prospect by Rivals and a three-star by 247Sports and ESPN, had offers from at least 16 Football Bowl Subdivision programs, including Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Miami, Florida and Florida State.
UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was a key piece to Hallman choosing the Badgers. Hallman has said in multiple interviews that he and Leonhard spoke often and that Leonhard was the kind of coach he wanted to play for. Leonhard was also key in UW landing another 2021 prospect out of Florida, linebacker Jake Cheney.
Adding Hallman to the fold continues a strong South Florida connection to UW’s secondary — current Badgers’ defensive backs Faion Hicks, Semar Melvin and Rachard Wildgoose are all from that area.
Skyler Bell — a 6-foot-1, 185-pound prospect out of Watertown, Conn. — had upwards of 18 scholarship offers, including other Big Ten programs like Iowa, Rutgers, and Northwestern before deciding on UW.
Bell is the first receiver to join the class, announcing his commitment in August, but the Badgers are expecting to add more.
Bell is a three-star recruit per 247Sports, ESPN and Rivals.
UW won an intense recruiting battle for Rucci, whose older brother Hayden is a Badgers tight end. Rucci held offers from nearly every top program in the country, but had narrowed his list to Clemson, Michigan, Notre Dame, Penn State and UW before announcing in early September.
Rucci is a five-star prospect and the No. 16 overall recruit in the country per 247Sports, while Rivals tabs him No. 29 and ESPN ranks him 33rd; Rivals and ESPN list him as a four-star recruit.
The Lititz, Penn., product is listed at 6-foot-8 and 295 pounds, and his father, Todd, played at Penn State before a seven-year career in the NFL with the New England Patriots.
AL ASHFORD III
Al Ashford III was a surprise pick up for the Badgers when he committed in early September. Ashford III’s commitment came seemingly out of nowhere, as he didn’t publicly announce a scholarship offer from UW prior to choosing the school.
Ashford III is listed as a three-star recruit on both 247Sports and Rivals, and is the top-rated cornerback in Colorado per 247Sports. He’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds.
Fond du Lac prospect Braelon Allen kicked off the Badgers' 2022 class with a bang when he committed in July 2020. But he reclassified to the 2021 class in September, giving the class its seventh four-star-or-better recruit in the 2021 class.
Allen — listed at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds — has been recruited as a safety, the position he’s played for Fond Du Lac, but 247Sports now lists him as an inside linebacker. Per 247Sports’ composite rankings, Allen is the No. 6 inside linebacker in the 2021 class.
Wide receiver Markus Allen became the first UW recruit to make his oral commitment during the 2020 season when he announced on Nov. 6.
He's a four-star prospect per Rivals and a three-star recruit according to 247Sports and ESPN.
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound target out of Clayton, Ohio, had at least 26 Division I offers and was ranked as the No. 10 player in his state by Rivals. After he de-commitment from Michigan in September, UW and Cincinnati emerged as favorites to land Allen.
Jake Ratzlaff joined a star-studded group of defensive recruits when he committed to the Badgers in late November.
Ratzlaff is a four-star prospect per 247Sports’ composite rankings and a three-star recruit per Rivals.
Ratzlaff was committed to Minnesota to play hockey, but decided to pursue football and chose UW over offers from Minnesota, Iowa, Iowa State, Northwestern and Penn State.
NATE VAN ZELST
Nate Van Zelst joined the 2021 class the day before February's signing day.
A five-star kicker per Kohl's Kicking, the Wilmette, Illinois, product is the first specialist to join the class. Van Zelst had a long field goal of 49 yards as a junior, but wasn't able to play a senior season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He accepted a preferred walk-on offer.
Garrison Solliday became the first post-signing day commitment for the Badgers when he announced he was joining the class on Feb. 8, 2021.
The Mendota Heights, Minnesota, product projects as a linebacker. The 6-foot, 220-pounder was an all-state football player and wrestler in Minnesota.
He accepted a walk-on offer.
Excited to announce my commitment to further my education and athletic career at the University of Wisconsin! Thank you to my coaches, family, friends and everyone who helped me get here.❤️🤍 #Badgers #wiscon21n @CoachBostadUW @tmehlhaff10 @CoachKhalif @CoachDanOB pic.twitter.com/oXpiDsnmE0— Gsolliday (@Gsolliday3) February 8, 2021
Grover Bortolotti joined the last in mid-February 2021 as a walk-on.
Bortolotti played running back and defensive back at Whitefish Bay, which went 7-0 his senior season. He's listed as an athlete by Rivals, so he could play safety or move to a different role once camp begins.
The 5-foot-10, 185-pounder had three interceptions his senior year.
Arrowhead High School product Owen Arnett joined the class in early March as a preferred walk-on.
Arnett originally committed to Virginia in November, but decided to stay closer to home and play at UW. The 6-foot, 200-pound prospect projects as a linebacker.
A second-team all-state edge player as a senior, Arnett had 67 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, five sacks and two interceptions, according to Wissports.com.