High School Sports

IMG Academy football is the ‘ultimate student-athlete experience.’ On and off the field

Before he was catching a football over the middle and racing past defensive players from a Canadian team and long before he committed to the University of Miami, Michael Redding III made a choice to come to IMG Academy.

But getting to the private sports academy renowned nationally for its high school football program wasn’t a slam dunk.

He had to go through an admissions process similar to what high school students face when applying to colleges.

“That was probably the hardest part,” said Redding, while wearing a Miami Hurricanes rubber band around his right wrist following IMG’s 50-0 victory over Canada’s Clarkson Football North last week. “I had to get recommendations, you have to write essays to make sure you actually get into IMG, and it actually took a long process because of those things.

“And also your parents and your family, that’s a family decision. So, of course, my mom wasn’t really in. She was the hardest one to kind of buy in. Dad was ready to go. He was the one like, ‘Hey, you should go to IMG.’ Mom, it took her a tougher time because I’m her oldest son.”

In total, Redding, who has two older sisters and a younger brother, took three months to make his decision to attend IMG Academy, which he announced in February 2018. He was originally wooed into going there by former teammate Trey Sanders, who is a freshman at Alabama. The two are from Florida’s panhandle with Sanders playing at Port St. Joe and Redding at Pensacola West Florida High before transferring to IMG.

What both found upon coming to IMG is no different than other athletes making the choice to come to the nationally ranked Ascenders: It’s not for the faint of heart.

IMG Demonte Capehart.jpg
IMG Academy defensive tackle Demonte Capehart has committed to Clemson University. Photo courtesy of IMG Academy

“That’s how we sell it. It’s not for everybody,” IMG head coach Kevin Wright said. “Because it is the ultimate student-athlete experience. The classes that you have is all core classes. Everybody when they come in here, it’s a little bit transition period for a lot of those guys because maybe they have this idea that there isn’t that balance.

“When in reality it is, they are spending more time academically than they are athletically, which is, for the most part, like it is in college.”

Added Clemson committed defensive tackle Demonte Capehart, who is in his first season with IMG: “At first, I was like, ‘That’s a power school.’ Then when I started doing research it was, ‘This team is really legit.’ It’s not just what you see on the field. It’s the classrooms, the coaching staff, it’s all-in-one.”

The days are long and tough, but they have a purpose. Starting at 6:30 a.m. every practice day and ending at 10:30 p.m. leads players to get acclimated and prepared for what college football life is like.

Kevin Wright mug shot.jpg
Kevin Wright

The schedule is filled with breakfast, the gym, meetings, practice, lunch, school, homework, study hall and then lights out.

“What we say here is the days are long, but the weeks go by fast,” said Redding, a senior wide receiver.

Redding is in his second season with the Ascenders, while there are others in their first year or that have been there for the past season or two.

Through all the changes in players and staff turnover, Wright has been there since 2015. The Ascenders have won 42 of 43 games under Wright. The program has only lost four times since its inaugural season in 2013 and has won 51 of the last 52 games dating to former Florida State Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Chris Weinke’s last year at IMG.

“Chris had laid the foundation of what this could be,” Wright said. “I had an idea and a plan. And the people, Chip (McCarthy) and Greg Phillips, who were here at the time as co-directors, had a real idea of where (wanting) football to go. That support and bringing in good coaches, I mean we’ve had, when you look at all the guys who have coached here ... it’s pretty remarkable. It’s really a team effort.”

Bo Scarbrough, who starred at IMG in its first varsity season before playing at Alabama, spoke to the team last week about being humble and explaining that Nick Saban tells his players that if they can’t show up to class on time, then how can he depend on them to be there on Saturdays, Wright said.

“You always have those guys to kind of draw from,” Wright said. “... If we have a guy that is maybe struggling a bit, I can make a call to, you name the guy at ‘X’ university and they’ll call that kid and tell him, ‘Listen, this is how we do it. This is how it’s supposed to be done.’ ”

On a team full of 4-star and 5-star recruits, the group continues on a year-by-year basis to play like a team and not a bunch of mercenaries.

It’s added up to a successful run, one where the lone loss in Wright’s tenure came last season to the mythical national champions, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.), roughly 2,500 miles away from home.

And they’ve continued winning this season, with a 6-0 start heading into Friday night’s game against Life Christian Academy (Va.).

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Sports reporter Jason has covered high school, college and pro sports since joining the Bradenton Herald in 2010. He’s won Florida Press Club awards for sports feature and column writing. He currently writes college and pro sports stories for the McClatchy East Region real-time team.