While the preseason Super 25 football rankings won’t come out until late July, this is one of a series on teams that could contend in the Super 25 high school football rankings next season. We previously looked at De La Salle (Concord, Calif.), South Panola (Batesville, Miss.), Colquitt County (Moultrie, Ga.), Miami (Fla.) Central, Chandler, Ariz and DeMatha Catholic (Hyattsville, Md.).
Team: IMG Academy, Bradenton, Fla.
2014 finish: The Ascenders went 10-1. They do not play for a state championship.
Tradition: Zip. This is IMG’s third season of play.
Spring football: April 28-May 21, ending with a Blue and White Intrasquad Game.
2015 schedule: Aug. 29 vs. Miramar; Sept. 5 at DeSoto, Texas; Sept. 11 vs. Cocoa; Sept. 19 at Bergen Catholic (Bergen, N.J.); (TBD) vs. American Heritage (Plantation); Oct. 2 vs. St. Joseph’s Regional (Montvale, N.J.); Oct. 23 vs. Paramus Catholic (Paramus, N.J.).
Top returnees (years listed are for next school year): Senior WR Tavares Chase, a Clemon commit and senior DB Saivion Smith, a LSU commit.
Top newcomers: Senior Isaac Nauta, considered the No. 1 TE by Rivals.com, is a FSU commit who transferred from Buford, Ga.; OL Tyler Gerald, a transfer from East (Sciotoville, Ohio) who is 6-5 and 305 pounds and has committed to Ohio State; five-star senior DE Shavar Manuel transferred from Blake (Tampa); senior LB Rahshaun Smith, a Clemson commit who transferred from St. Frances (Baltimore); and QB Malik Henry, a FSU commit who transferred from Westlake (Westlake Village, Calif.).
Toughest to replace: QB Deondre Francois, who signed with Florida State.
Outlook: This year’s IMG Academy team is an interesting experiment. There’s little question the talent is there as more than a dozen of the team’s players have Divsion I offers, but new coach Kevin Wright is tasked with molding a team that includes players from seven countries and 25 states, few of whom had played together before this spring.
Wright is a former head coach at Carmel, Ind., Warren Central (Indianapolis), Union (Tulsa, Okla.) and a former offensive coordinator at Western Kentucky. Knowing he wanted to improve team cohesion quickly after he was hired in April, he put the team through a boot camp, something he did when he was a coach at Warren Central.
“Everybody wants to talk about the four or five-star guys we have,” Wright said. “We’ve got a good mix of kids who are going to have to come together. We did a 36-hour military training and it brought the kids together. That’s going to be the key, getting everyone to buy in. The camp is as much mental as physical. It was a great bonding experience where we found out what these kids are all about and they get to know each other.”
IMG has a 450-acre campus with a 5,000-seat stadium, two full-size practice fields, a 40,000 square-foot field house and a 10,000 square-foot weight room. It also has a Gatorade Sports Science Institute to test athletes.
“The facilities here are second to none,” Wright said. “When you look at everything we have on campus, our strength and conditioning center, our Gatorade sports science center, I would put our facilities on the level of a mid-major college. From an academic standpoint, it is a college-like atmosphere. These kids are being challenged in a lot of different ways. It’s not for everybody.”
Neither is the expense. While some of the players are receiving full or partial scholarships, not all are and the tuition runs from $54,300 to $68,500 a year, depending on whether a student is boarding at the school or not. For that reason, the roster is smaller than many Super 25 programs.
“It’s a numbers thing in football, more than basketball or baseball,” Wright said. “That makes it more challenging. At Carmel, we had 207 players. We are going to have 75 kids in our program. That almost gives you an NFL-type roster, so depth can become a concern. It forces us to develop our kids all the way through.”
Some of the players who have already stood out to Wright include Henry, Gerald and Nauta.
“We’ve only had seven practices, but on paper, Malik Henry is probably the guy at quarterback,” Wright said. “On our offensive line, the guy who stands out is Tyler Gerald. He’s 6-4, 315 and has had a great first two weeks. He’s very athletic and tough. Nauta is 6-3, or 6-4 and 240 and has tremendous speed and hands. He can also put his hand in the dirt and be an attached tight end, or play as a H-back type. He has a lot of flexibility because of his athletic ability and those guys are tough to find.”
The big question for the Ascenders is surviving their schedule. As an independent program that is part of the Florida High School Athletic Association, they have more flexibility in their schedule than most teams and will play seven opponents next fall who have recently been in the Super 25 rankings.
“We play a national schedule,” Wright said. “The schedule has definitely been upgraded and we’ll definitely be tested every week. That’s part of getting these players ready for the next level. Our brand has been out there now for a couple of years and we’re getting 12 to 15 college coaches out there every day to look at our players. This is only the third year of our program and each year, we hope to get a little better and build on the foundation.”
Follow Jim Halley on Twitter at @jimhalley