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IMG Academy football preview 2017: Ascenders go for another perfect season

The IMG Ascenders’ offensive linemen is expected to be one of the most dominant in the country.
The IMG Ascenders’ offensive linemen is expected to be one of the most dominant in the country. ttompkins@bradenton.com

At a glance

Herald’s prediction: 10-0

IMG Academy still has yet to lose a game during the Kevin Wright Era, but with the toughest schedule in the country, the winning streak is always at risk of ending. IMG once again should have the most talented roster in the country. The only question: How quickly can the Ascenders come together?

Deep at: Wide receiver

Thin at: Special teams

Head coach: Kevin Wright

Career: 15th year (third at IMG Academy), 152-27 (20-0)

Needs a big season from: Its offensive line

Evan Neal is 6 feet, 8 inches and 385 pounds. He’s a junior who’s already coveted by Florida State, Miami, Alabama and Georgia. He mans both tackle and guard well enough to possess a four-star rating from 247sports.com’s composite rankings. And even he thought the same thing it seems everyone does when they first see Daniel Faalele.

“Whoa,” he thought. “That guy’s big.”

“Actually,” Neal adds, “when I first saw him I thought he was like some NFL guy just coming in.”

He’s also the ultimate X-factor in high school football and the national recruiting scene. The 6-foot-9, 390-pound Australian has never played a high school game, yet he’s a three-star prospect in the Class of 2018 and likely will start at tackle for one of the best teams in the nation this fall. If Faalele delivers on his potential, IMG Academy could be headed to a third straight undefeated season.

Given his size, Faalele is the rare football prospect to capture imaginations even without any sort of film to back up his professed upside. The former rugby player knew so little about the sport when he first came to Bradenton last year that his coaches and teammates had to explain to him what a yard was, Neal said.

“For real,” Neal said. “He had to learn.”

But unlike at most schools where one tackle can make or break an offensive line, IMG has the talent to survive even if Faalele isn’t ready to start right away. Along with Neal, tackles Reuben Unije and Verdis Brown, and interior linemen Curtis Dunlap and Mitchell Zoloty all are at least two-star prospects who would start for almost any team in the nation.

With the Ascenders, one of the six will have to come off the bench.

5Different primary starting quarterbacks in five seasons if Artur Sitkowski of Toms River, N.J., wins the job. The Miami commit could share time with fellow senior Zack Annexstad.

23IMG Academy players in the Class of 2018 who possess at least a two-star rating, according to 247sports.com’s composite rankings. Twenty of those have at least three stars and 11 have four.

1,881Rushing yards for Oklahoma commit T.J. Pledger last season with Chaminade in West Hills, Calif. The senior likely will share time with fellow running backs Noah Cain and Trey Sanders this fall.

Schedule breakdown

Who’s in: Chandler (Ariz.), Miami Central, Miami Northwestern, Venice, East (Salt Lake City, Utah), Hoover (Ala.)

Who’s out: Grayson (Loganville, Ga.), Washington (Tulsa, Okla.), Lauderdale Lakes Boyd Anderson, West Palm Beach Oxbridge Academy, Jacksonville Trinity Christian Academy, Long Beach (Calif.) Poly, Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna

Upgrade: IMG Academy once again has one of the toughest schedules in the nation with six teams from USA Today’s preseason Top 25 on the docket.

Impact newcomer

Xavier Thomas, Sr., DE

Considered by some to be the No. 1 overall prospect in the Class 2018, Thomas was the MVP of The Opening and should give IMG Academy one of the most destructive defensive lines in the country. The Clemson commit transferred to IMG from Wilson in Florence, S.C.

2017 schedule

Games start at 7 p.m. unless noted

Blue

Aug. 26

at Chandler (Ariz.), 10:30 p.m.

Sept. 2

Centennial (Corona, Calif.)*, 10:30 p.m.

Sept. 8

St. Frances Academy (Baltimore)

Sept. 15

St. John’s College (Washington, D.C.)

Sept. 22

Miami Central

Sept. 30

Miami Northwestern

Oct. 6

at Venice, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 20

at East (Salt Lake City), 9 p.m.

Nov. 3

at Hoover (Hoover, Ala.)

Nov. 11

Bishop Sullivan Catholic (Virginia Beach, Va.)

*-neutral site game in San Diego

White

Aug. 25

Nature Coast Tech

Sept. 1

at Saint Stephen’s

Sept. 8

at West Oaks

Sept. 15

at Gateway Charter

Sept. 23

Kingdom Prep

Oct. 6

at Trinity Catholic

Oct. 20

at Berkeley Prep

Oct. 27

West Park Prep

Nov. 3

at Key West

Nov. 11

Superior Collegiate

2016 results

Grayson (Loganville, Ga.)

W, 26-7

Centennial (Corona, Calif.)

W, 50-49

Washington (Tulsa, Okla.)

W, 49-7

St. John’s College (Washington, D.C.)

W, 35-14

Boyd Anderson

W, 38-0

Oxbridge Academy

W, 38-0

Trinity Christian Academy

W, 34-21

Long Beach Poly (Long Beach, Calif.)

W, 34-0

Chaminade-Madonna

W, 43-0

St. Frances Academy

W, 38-0

Bishop Sullivan Catholic (Virginia Beach, Va.)

W, 16-6

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