Gabe Bakker will enter his fourth year at Tiffin (IA) Clear Creek-Amana, so both he and T.J. Bollers essentially came into the high school around the same time. From the head coach's perspective, he has seen Wisconsin's newest commit turn into a physical football player.
"When he was a freshman, he's always been bigger and those things," Bakker told AllBadgers.com on Thursday afternoon. "He didn't have to be physical in junior high games. He's really grown with being able to put his hand in the ground, go after people, and he's really grown in that regard in my opinion."
In the past couple of years, Clear Creek-Amana has run a 3-4 defense, and Bollers has lined up at end. That appears to be changing heading into his senior season.
Bakker acknowledged how the program will move into a different look for the 2020 season. Bollers may be able to flash more traits that has attracted some of the nation's best college football programs.
"This upcoming year, we're actually going to utilize a four-man front and probably put him to the field side, and at times, take his hand off the ground and be in a two-point (stance) maybe and drop back into coverage," Bakker said. "Defensively, we're going to look to utilize his skill set as much as we can."
While Bollers told AllBadgers.com that Wisconsin was projecting him at outside linebacker when he gets to Madison, he plays on both sides of the ball at the high school level. Check his junior Hudl film, and one will see him catching passes and delivering a pancake against defenders.
"Offensively, he's been one of our best tight ends so we've had him play both ways," Bakker said. "We do give him a rest on offense at times, but he's one of our better pass receivers that we have. He's made some big plays in in the run game as well so when you have a Power Five, D-1 player on your team, you have to utilize them the best that you can."
247Sports, Rivals and ESPN all rate Bollers as a four-star recruit. 247Sports composite rankings designate the Tiffin (IA) Clear Creek Amana product as the No. 147 player overall and No. 8 weak-side defensive end in the nation.
Rivals ranks him the highest out of the three aforementioned recruiting services as the No. 98 player in the country. It also reports 21 offers for the Hawkeye State standout, which includes Power Five opportunities from Alabama, Nebraska, Penn State, Florida, Iowa, Iowa State, Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame and Texas A&M.
When looking at the relationship between Wisconsin and Bollers, Bakker believes it has blossomed from day one.
"When he first went up and visited there a year ago, he came back home and he said something just felt right," Bakker said. "That doesn't take away what everybody else has done in this process from other programs because I think T.J. and his family fully immersed themselves in each program and wanted to feel right, but there's always been something that's held his heart at Wisconsin ever since day one.
"I think getting to know all the coaches in there, specifically Coach (Bobby) April, (tight ends coach), Mickey (Turner) and Coach (Paul) Chryst, it's really been the place that seemed right, and I think it's been a good relationship from the get go."
Bakker recalled that about 10 months ago, Bollers told him that UW was "probably No. 1." He officially heard the news of the decision to commit to the Badgers directly from the prospect and his dad a week ago as they stopped by his driveway.
On Thursday, Bollers made his commitment publicly known via social media.
Bollers now can turn his attention to his senior season. In terms of strengths as he heads into his final high school year, Bakker called out a couple of qualities, first and foremost being his motor.
"(Bollers) doesn't stop whether that's on the field, before practice, after practice. He's the hardest working kid we got," Bakker said. "When you add in his physical attributes with his motor, there's some pretty good things happening.
"I also think he's really developed into a leadership role. With the spotlight on him, it was kind of tough in his freshman and sophomore years to be that leader, but he's really grown with his teammates. I fully expect him to bring out the best in all of his senior classmates and junior kids this upcoming fall."
On the flip side when looking at areas of growth not just in his final prep year but also when he gets to Madison, Bakker looked at giving Bollers more opportunities to get him in space and potentially dropping into coverage.
The head coach also pointed to possibly allowing Bollers to work without having a hand in the ground to give him those experiences before heading to UW.
"I know it's not always about that. We have to do what's best for our team, but we also have to help him for his future," Bakker said. "So I could see us trying to do some of those things here in a couple months."