How IMG Academy became the new-age recruiting powerhouse that the B1G is set on winning
BRADENTON, Fla. — On a breezy Florida afternoon in May, two 30-something men wearing tucked-in polos make small talk while standing on a crowded sideline.
There’s no mistaking what they are. Like the men that surround them, they’re college football coaches. For the more-knowledgeable college football fan, there’s no mistaking who they are, either.
The taller one in the white-striped Penn State polo is Lions wide receivers coach Josh Gattis. The shorter, well-built guy in the cardinal red polo is Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. The B1G assistants are more familiar with each other than the other 15-plus college coaches that stand on the IMG Academy sideline.
Exactly five months earlier on the first Saturday of December, Gattis and Leonhard stood on opposite sidelines at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Leonhard, then Wisconsin’s defensive backs coach, schemed against Gattis’ group of receivers in the B1G Championship.
That matchup proved to be the deciding factor. It was Gattis’ receivers who fueled a furious second-half comeback and ultimately, a 38-31 victory. Penn State’s long, athletic pass-catchers took advantage of Wisconsin’s stout, but smaller secondary. Gattis helped the Lions expose Wisconsin’s weakness, which was the difference in winning a conference title.
If Gattis and Leonhard talk about the B1G Championship in Bradenton, it isn’t a long conversation. They didn’t make the cross-country flight to southwest Florida to chat about the past.
They’re at IMG to recruit the core of their next B1G Championship team.
Unlike the one they had back in December, the battle at IMG isn’t just Penn State vs. Wisconsin. Every Power Five conference has at least one assistant in Bradenton, not to mention a handful of Group of Five schools and Notre Dame.
“It blows you away,” IMG coach Kevin Wright says.
In a few short years, IMG became a high school football juggernaut with more blue-chip recruits than anywhere in the country.
And winning the IMG battle in May can make all the difference in winning the real battle in December.
The numbers are staggering.
It’s one thing to have a handful of FBS signees come from one high school. It’s another thing to have 21 kids — one short of an entire starting lineup — earn an FBS scholarship. That was the case for IMG in 2017.
All but one of those 21 FBS signees enrolled at their college early. The only one who didn’t was Michigan signee Jordan Anthony, who stayed at IMG to play baseball. He was the only two-sport athlete on the football team.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, Jim Harbaugh’s well-documented spring break practice at IMG made an impact on Anthony’s decision to pick Michigan.
“Just seeing the way (Michigan) worked with the players in practice and stuff like that,” Anthony said, “that definitely helped a lot.”
The vast majority of top-flight recruits that transfer to IMG like Anthony do so with a single focus; surround oneself with the best competition, facilities, coaches and opportunities possible to prepare for big-time college football.
Nebraska commit Brendan Radley-Hiles
After IMG fielded its first football team in 2013, a bunch of elite recruits followed that path. Take a look at IMG’s players ranked among the top 150 recruits in that stretch and a few things stand out:
IMG’s top 150 recruits by year (247sports composite):
- No. 16 Bo Scarbrough (Alabama)
- No. 64 Deondre Francois (FSU)
- No. 143 Hjalte Froholdt (Arkansas)
- No. 4 Shea Patterson (Ole Miss)
- No. 12 Isaac Nauta (Georgia)
- No. 48 Saivion Smith (LSU)
- No. 67 Shavar Manuel (Florida State)
- No. 78 Shaq Smith (Clemson)
- No. 124 Drake Davis (LSU)
- No. 9 Joshua Kaindoh (Florida State)
- No. 13 Dylan Moses (Alabama)
- No. 44 Cesar Ruiz (Michigan)
- No. 59 Isaiah Pryor (Ohio State)
- No. 65 Grant Delpit (LSU)
- No. 75 Jhamon Ausbon (Texas A&M)
- No. 81 Robert Hainsey (Notre Dame)
- No. 107 Jordan Anthony (Michigan)
- No. 108 Kellen Mond (Texas A&M)
2018 (on the spring roster)
- No. 2 Xavier Thomas (Clemson)
- No. 12 Taron Vincent (Ohio State)
- No. 48 Brendan Radley-Hiles (Nebraska)
- No. 50 T.J. Pledger (Oklahoma)
- No. 58 Houston Griffith
- No. 74 Joshua Moore (Nebraska)
- No. 77 Artur Sitkowski (Miami)
- No. 101 Brian Hightower (Miami)
- No. 112 Stephon Wynn (Alabama)
It doesn’t take a Northwestern master’s degree to see that IMG’s top-150 recruits increased significantly in the past three years. In 2017, IMG had more top-150 recruits than any state in the B1G footprint. In many ways, it became Ground Zero for recruiting.
“Do you have to absolutely get every single kid out of (IMG) to win a national title? No,” ESPN Senior National Recruiting Analyst Tom Luginbill said. “Do you have to recruit it diligently every year and get a few kids if you’re gonna be a Florida State or a Florida or a Miami or an Alabama? Yes, I think you do.”
That thinking now applies to B1G contenders, too. Before 2016, a B1G team had never signed a top-150 recruit from IMG.
In fact, the 2017 class was IMG’s first that had a top-150 recruit sign with a school north of the Mason-Dixon line. Four of IMG’s nine top-150 recruits signed with Midwest schools. IMG’s 2018 class already has three B1G commitments who are ranked in the top 100.
One is Nebraska pledge Brendan Radley-Hiles, who’s better known as “Bookie.” IMG is his third high school. He attended to Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) and Calabasas (Los Angeles), both of which produce their fair share of blue-chip recruits. But unlike his previous two stops, IMG has one element that makes it feel more like college.
“IMG is way different than (Calabasas and Bishop Gorman) because we actually live here,” Radley-Hiles said. “But it’s been a great experience for me. I came here coming from Calabasas, and I made a great transition. I kept my head down and I worked.”
Like many of the high school recruits that come to IMG, Radley-Hiles already had offers from essentially every program in the country. That wouldn’t have changed if he stayed at Calabasas. He committed to Nebraska before he ever played a down at IMG.
ESPN Senior National Recruiting Analyst Tom Luginbill
So why spend senior year in Bradenton?
“I mean,” Radley-Hiles paused, “if you want to be prepared — I can’t say prepared altogether because you can be prepared at your home school — but if you want to maximize your potential to be prepared, I would say IMG is the best place for you.”
Daniel Faalele would not have been prepared for big-time college football if he stayed at his home school. Why? American football isn’t a high school sport in Australia. Actually, Faalele had never played a down of organized football before he got to IMG. That didn’t stop programs like Alabama, Florida State and Michigan from offering the three-star recruit.
There’s another important detail worth mentioning with Faalele. He’s 6-8, 400 pounds.
The thought of getting a college scholarship and perhaps playing professional football one day appealed to Faalele and his parents.
“I spoke to Coach Wright a couple times over the phone and my parents trusted him and trusted (IMG student-athlete advisor Sheldon Bell) with me being here,” Faalele said. “They trusted me to make the right decisions and just let me go.”
Never mind the fact that Faalele didn’t even know what a yard was or that he had never lifted weights before he stepped on IMG’s campus. Teams bet on the belief that two years in Bradenton — he didn’t play in games in 2016 — would give Faalele the foundation he needed to play college football.
In a way, it’s the ultimate IMG experiment. How much will Faalele grow — probably not much more physically — with two years of the best high school facilities, competition and developmental staff that money can buy? Only time will tell if he can join his new teammates among the nation’s top 150 recruits.
Lord knows there are plenty of people counting on the IMG coaching staff to do the heavy lifting.
In February of 2015, there was snow on the ground outside of Kevin Wright’s home just north of Indianapolis. It was the offseason for Wright, who was a decorated high school football coach at Carmel High School in Indiana. Wright led his squad to three state championship games in five years at Carmel, as well as three consecutive state titles at Warren Central (Indianapolis) earlier in his career. His dad, Larry “Bud” Wright, is the all-time winningest coach in Indiana high school football history. The Wrights were the first family of Indiana high school football coaches.
Life for the Wright family in Indianapolis was ideal. Kevin Wright’s wife, Elizabeth, had her own career as a high school principal. Their two kids were a few short years from getting a top-notch education at one of the premiere high schools in the Midwest. There was no reason for Wright to think that he and his family would ever leave Indianapolis again.
Then, IMG Academy called.
Wright spoke on the phone with IMG’s co-Managing Director Greg Phillips. Two years after the school launched its football program, it needed a new coach. Phillips wanted Wright to replace IMG’s first football coach, 2000 Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke. He left Bradenton to become the St. Louis Rams’ quarterbacks coach. Phillips was after someone like Wright, who with his time on Western Kentucky’s staff, had experience at the high school and college levels.
Wright did what anyone would do. He started with a Google search, where he would’ve seen that IMG was once best known for having the world-famous Bollettieri Tennis Academy that produced talents like Andre Agassi and Maria Sharapova. The young football program wasn’t at that level yet, but an on-campus visit showed Wright that the plan was in place for that to happen.
IMG coach Kevin Wright
IMG had all the resources he could ever want. On top of that, his two kids would get that top-notch education. Trading in Indianapolis snow for Gulf Coast palm trees didn’t sound bad, either.
A couple weeks after getting the call from Phillips, Wright accepted the job.
But in his first spring in Bradenton, he quickly learned that it wasn’t just the weather that was different about his new job in Florida.
“In the South, they have spring football. And where we’re located at, and who we are, and the kids that we have, we have kids from all over the country,” Wright said. “I think we had kids from 27 different states and seven or eight different countries last year. So I think that the very first spring practice, when you go out there, I always tell the kids, some of the best times will be when we go out and practice against each other in the spring and there’s 30 college coaches from everywhere.”
Wright was no stranger to seeing B1G coaches show up at one of his practices in Indianapolis. He had relationships with nearly all of them. Urban Meyer, Pat Fitzgerald and former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson all knew Wright well. Wright even went way back with newly-hired Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh because Harbaugh’s dad coached at Western Kentucky.
In Indianapolis, Wright didn’t often connect with SEC coaches for the simple fact that most of the conference didn’t recruit the Midwest. Needless to say, he got to know them quite well at IMG.
“Alabama was the first school when I got here to say, ‘Hey, we want your practice tape,’” Wright said, “because how many times can a college recruiter, how many times can they watch Division 1 players go against Division 1 players over the course of a two and a half hour practice in different situations? Think about that. We may be one of the few high schools in America where that’s as valuable as a lot of game tape.”
In many ways, practices are more important than games at IMG. If schools want IMG’s game tape, they can probably get it by flipping on an ESPN network on a Friday night in the fall.
That was perhaps the biggest difference between Wright’s job in Indianapolis compared to Bradenton. His goal at IMG isn’t to win state titles. His team doesn’t even compete for state titles. It doesn’t really matter that IMG lost just one game in the past three years. The program plays a national schedule — it’ll rack up more travel miles than the University of Florida in 2017 — but it’s all about college preparation.
That’s the appeal for a 17-year-old kid to come to Bradenton. Wright said all of IMG’s inquiries are inbound and that they don’t recruit, though many don’t believe that. As for how the yearly board and tuition of $72,500 is paid for by each student — they can get financial aid — that’s different depending on whom you ask.
But take a tour of IMG’s campus and it doesn’t take long to see where the money goes.
The 65,000-square foot Gatorade Sports Science Institute includes a 13,500-square foot weight room, a yoga studio and a recovery center with equipment like a hyperbaric chamber and an anti-gravity treadmill. Student-athletes log into their accounts on touch-screen devices before lifting weights. The force behind each repetition is digitally tracked so that the strength coaches can see how a player performs within each set.
And to be clear, there isn’t just one strength coach. IMG’s performance coaches and staff consists of 36 people. That doesn’t include the student-athlete advisors or the six assistant coaches Wright has on his ever-changing staff. In 2017 alone, IMG had assistant coaches get jobs at Illinois and Notre Dame.
For coaches and athletes, IMG created the ultimate stepping stone into big-time college football. By having those resources— albeit there are less off-the-field distractions in Bradenton than in a football-crazed college town — IMG offers a pre-test of sorts.
“That is the whole ball of wax here. It’s kind of like equating the kid to graduating from college,” Luginbill said. “If you’re a scholarship athlete in college and you’re afforded all of these resources — private tutors, study hall, privileged classes in terms of registration and getting where you need to get, a path that’s set out for you to graduate — it doesn’t come down to ‘Can you graduate — it comes down to, ‘Do you want to?’
“I can tell you right now, that is the No. 1 question college coaches are asking the coaches at IMG about a guy. ‘How is this guy handling all of this at his disposal? Is he a worker? Is he just taking advantage of it and along for the ride? What is his mindset and approach given that he’s got these things and he’s still in high school. Is he utilizing that and does he see the big picture?’”
Joshua Moore remembers what Wright told the team the first day they put on pads for spring practice.
“You’re either going to get exposure or you’re going to get exposed.”
Moore didn’t have to worry about getting exposed back in Yoakum, Texas. He was the best player every time he stepped on the field. Well, his brother Jordan might argue on that claim. The Moore brothers were the type of combination that small Texas towns dream about. As juniors in 2016, they led Yoakum to its first football state championship game in 64 years.
Both were big-time Division 1 recruits with their sights set on bigger things outside their town of roughly 6,000 people. A week after Yoakum came up short in the state championship game, Jordan committed to Texas A&M. Joshua Moore had a different kind of commitment in mind. Six weeks after his season ended at AT&T Stadium — better known as the home of the Dallas Cowboys — he announced that he was transferring to IMG for his senior season.
“It was very hard, but one thing my parents always told me is I have to do what’s best for me at all times. Like I said, it’s an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up,” Moore said. “Yeah, it’s always going to be hard when you’re away from the people you’ve grown up with your whole life, and by that I mean my parents, my brothers, my sisters, all my siblings, of course my friends back home, my coaches, stuff like that.
“But only one thing going through this process and trying to decide if I wanted to come here or not was, ‘Can it help me or can it not help me?’ It’s definitely helping me. So when you think about it like that, it makes everything a lot smoother.”
One thing Moore didn’t need help with was exposure. Despite his small-town roots, the top-100 recruit already had dozens of big-time offers when he arrived at IMG.
On a day-to-day basis, though, life in Bradenton was much different than he was used to. At Yoakum, he never saw more than three college coaches at a spring practice. At IMG, that number was often between 20-25. It wasn’t always limited to the practice field, either.
“I remember last year, one of our (IMG) quarterbacks was telling me a story about how he was sitting in class and Coach (Urban) Meyer had walked into the classroom just to check on him, make sure he’s doing what he’s supposed to do,” Moore said. “That’s one thing I would not have done to me back in Yoakum. Coach Meyer would, for sure, not have walked into my classroom like that. So when you come here, you’re put on the stage for a reason.”
There are challenges that come with the IMG stage that have nothing to do with football. One of the obvious obstacles is living hundreds or thousands of miles away from family for the first time. Some parents have jobs that allow them to travel down to IMG for a few days at a time. Others rent or even buy homes in Bradenton.
But for many families, it’s a long-distance relationship with their teenage son. That dynamic alone is enough to prevent some high school stars from transferring to IMG. It’s one thing to leave home for college. It’s another to leave home for high school.
Moore believed he could make that adjustment. He was willing to put the rest of his life on the back-burner and essentially start his college career early at IMG. Or so he thought.
Nebraska commit Joshua Moore
A few months after Moore made the cross-country trip to Bradenton, he decided to go back to Yoakum. He said that family reasons led to his decision and it didn’t have anything to do with the IMG system. Being a 19-hour drive from Yoakum wasn’t easy, either.
Moore will finish his high school career playing alongside his brother with his family watching at Yoakum. Though brief, his short time at IMG could help take his game — and Yoakum — to the next level. Every day, he got to match up against blue-chip cornerbacks like Radley-Hiles and Houston Griffith. It was basically like an extended stay at a national all-star game, but instead of experiencing the often relaxed attitude of those exhibition games, Moore got his first taste of the demand that comes with playing college football.
None of the powerhouse programs pulled their offers after he went back to Texas. Weeks after his return, Moore announced his commitment to Nebraska. There, he’ll be reunited with Radley-Hiles and potentially more of his former IMG teammates. As for the 900 miles between Lincoln and Yoakum, Moore said he’s not worried about that.
Now, he’s got one more year to prepare.
Everyone who comes to IMG has a different story.
There are kids like Sky Stefonic who came to Bradenton all the way from Washington (the state) in hopes of developing into a legitimate Power Five recruit. His dad, Larry, was a track athlete in his day, but even he could see the potential of what three years at IMG could do for his son.
There are kids like Griffith who came to Bradenton with loads of offers after starring at a powerhouse high school like Mount Carmel (Chicago). His dad, Big Ten Network analyst Howard Griffith, was a former Illinois running back and a two-time Super Bowl champion. And even he, with all of his resources, saw the value in his son spending two years at IMG.
As for what each IMG player gains from the experience, that’s up to them. Wright said that he doesn’t have to field calls from parents complaining about playing time. His main interaction with parents comes before their son makes the decision whether to transfer to IMG. Often times, Wright will tell them something that might come as a bit of a surprise.
“This place is not for everybody,” Wright said. “You’ve gotta be intrinsically motivated, so everybody on our football team is intrinsically motivated to be the best player. As I put it, you come here to be the best player you can be within a team setting, because football is the ultimate team sport.”
IMG to high school football, some believe, is Oak Hill Academy (Virginia) to high school basketball. Both get some of the top players from all over the country — much to the frustration of other high school coaches — where they’re treated like college players. They both play national schedules, they both have their fair share of games on ESPN and they both are constantly in the spotlight.
Football is only entering its fifth season at IMG, but it’s only a matter of time before it produces its own Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony like Oak Hill did. Every college coach in America wants to be the one to sign that once-in-a-generation talent at IMG. Who knows? Maybe they already did.
When Alabama takes on Florida State in the monster Week 1 showdown, it’ll feature seven IMG graduates, including arguably the game’s two most high-profile players in FSU quarterback Deondre Francois and Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough. It’ll also be the debut of Alabama true freshman linebacker Dylan Moses, who was compared to LeBron James, Bo Jackson and Ray Lewis while he was at IMG.
No wonder the B1G wants in on the action.
Technically, it is. When the 2017 season kicks off, 11 B1G teams will have at least one player or coach who came from IMG. That number figures to grow considering IMG will now have two teams (one national and one just in Florida) with a total of 120 players on its roster.
But it’s not just about following Midwest recruits down to IMG to make sure SEC schools don’t scoop them up. It’s about having a presence at the most important school in the new era of national recruiting.
The Lantern reported that Wisconsin spent the least amount of money on recruiting of any B1G school from 2012-15. The Badgers’ $1.02 million recruiting budget in that stretch was less than the $1.391 million Penn State spent in 2014 alone.
Still, both schools found themselves in the 2016 B1G Championship, and both schools were at that IMG practice on the first Wednesday in May.
After all, each B1G school — with the exception of new members Maryland and Rutgers — is expected to haul in north of $50 million next year with the new TV deal. But if Fordham can budget for trips to IMG, so can Maryland and Rutgers. The question is no longer whether a school can afford to make regular flights down to Bradenton. As the list of elite IMG recruits continues to grow, one thing has become clear.
These days, you can’t afford not to be in Bradenton.