'I've got plenty of learning to do': In-state phenom T.J. Bollers keeps improving, adds Penn State interest
TIFFIN, Ia. — T.J. Bollers began creating buzz in eastern Iowa in eighth grade, dominating his competition from just about every position.
The chatter was that if he kept his head down and worked, this kid could be special.
So far, so good.
After becoming the youngest player to ever make the Register's Iowa Eight, Bollers has helped lead Clear Creek Amana to a 5-0 start and No. 6 ranking in the Register's latest Class 3A top 10. He's got 19.5 tackles, seven solo tackles for loss and two solo sacks, along with eight catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns.
He already held offers from Iowa, Iowa State, Minnesota and Nebraska (plus interest from all around the Midwest) before this season. Now, Penn State is the latest school to reach out.
"I feel like I’ve grown a lot," Bollers, who's already 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, told the Register. "Obviously, there’s still a lot more room to grow because I’m just a sophomore. I’ve got plenty of learning to do. I’m just learning every day, just playing my game."
Bollers, who plays all over but is being recruited at defensive end, really came into his own during CCA's final game last year, when he had 4.5 tackles and two solo sacks in a 29-14 win over Central DeWitt. That momentum carried over into a productive offseason on the camp circuit and now into his sophomore year.
He's quick to credit everyone around him for his success. His teammates, his coaches and trainers — even Mr. Hutch, the audio guy at CCA's home stadium. Above all, Bollers said his family helps him stay grounded while he keeps piling up attention.
In fact, Bollers was invited to Iowa vs. Wisconsin but didn't go because his little sister had a marching band competition. The Bollers family was out in full force to support.
"I’m really just going out there to play my game," he said. "I’m not trying to search for the attention."
Bollers already visited Iowa for its opener versus Northern Illinois, and he was in Ames two weekends ago for the Oklahoma game. He's planning to visit Northwestern on Nov. 3, Minnesota on Nov. 10 (defensive end coach Marcus Rush visited Bollers at CCA on Monday), Nebraska on Nov. 17 and Michigan State on Nov. 24.
Regarding Iowa, Bollers said: "I feel like the relationship is going real great. ... When I was there at the NIU game, it was really great. I got to hang out with all the commits that were there — like Noah Fenske, Ezra (Miller), Tyler Endres, (Jake) Karchinski and a bunch of other dudes, so that was a lot of fun being able to hear from them and what they had to say."
Regarding Iowa State, he said: "Up at Iowa State, it was a lot of fun, too. It was a great game even though they lost. It was really hot though. I went through a whole shirt and had to go and get a new one. But the relationship is great up there also."
The Register was on hand for Bollers' game last Friday against Iowa City Liberty. Here's what we saw:
Before he ever plays a snap ...
Bollers' size obviously stands out. He has just begun his sophomore year, and he's already 6-4 and 230 — up from 200 pounds as a freshman. Part of what's so intriguing about Bollers is seeing how his body develops from here. He could feasibly become a prototypical pass-rushing defensive end for a 4-3 defense. (Think Khalil Mack.) But he could also become a five-technique run-stopping defensive end for a 3-4 defense like Nebraska's. (Think Calais Campbell.) Heck, it's not entirely out of the question that Bollers could develop into a highly athletic defensive tackle, although defensive end seems much more likely at this point. (He showcased some nice run-stopping skills against Liberty, which only threw the ball eight times.)
The kid plays everywhere — and does it well
Often, you'll find your team's best athletes at defensive end. Bollers fits that bill. He also runs track (at 6-4 and 230, he runs the 200-meter) and plays basketball and baseball. On the football field, he literally plays all over: defensive end, defensive tackle, tight end, wide receiver, fullback and even pseudo-offensive tackle at times. Bollers pancakes defenders as a blocker, and he shows good hands as a receiver/tight end ... before he plows over smaller linebackers or defensive backs between him and the end zone. During the Liberty game, Bollers caught two passes: One was a 12-yard touchdown where he trucked a defensive back who wanted nothing to do with him, and the other was a 20-yard gain off a screen where Bollers dragged defenders to the goal line.
Once the technique matches the athleticism, watch out
Technically, Bollers is significantly better than he was last year. He's starting to look more like a great football player, not just a great athlete. But, as he knows, there's still a long way to go. His hand work and hips are noticeable areas of improvement. His explosion off the line is hard to teach. He's embracing physicality much more this year than as a freshman feeling things out on varsity. As he progresses, he'll learn more about how to gain leverage against different kinds of lineman, and how he can use his athleticism in different ways to beat them. It takes time, and Bollers has plenty of that.
Matthew Bain covers college football and basketball recruiting for the Des Moines Register. He also helps out with Iowa and Iowa State football and basketball coverage for HawkCentral and Cyclone Insider. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.