High School Sports

Prep football | Veteran running backs expected to carry IMG Academy Ascenders

MANATEE -- With three days until Thursday's annual spring intramural scrimmage, IMG's offense was finally moving the ball against its defense.

With projected starting quarterback Malik Henry on the sideline for Monday's practice, the Ascenders' offense was at its best against a defense that features five prospects from the 247sports composite's top 300.

The replacement quarterbacks took turns slinging the ball into the flats or in middle distances down the field for chunks of yardage. More often, though, they were shoving the ball into the running backs' chests, letting IMG's trio of talented ball carriers slice through the vaunted defense.

"This is the first time all spring they've beaten us," linebacker Rahshaun Smith groaned from the sideline to no one in particular.

For the Ascenders, turnover is the norm. IMG is replacing the quarterback and several offensive linemen from its 10-1 team of a year ago, and while the Ascenders have added three top-300 players on offense -- Henry, tight end Isaac Nauta and guard Tyler Gerald -- their running-back stable is the heart of the offense. The top three rushers from last year are back and expect to be an even larger part of the offense in 2015.

"We're the only core that has everybody returning, and last year we also had a big role in the offense," running back Taven Birdow said, "so this year it kind of seems like we're the main guys and as long as we do good we'll carry the offense with us."

Four-star prospect Tony Jones Jr., a Notre Dame commit, is IMG's top option out of the backfield after rushing for 771 yards in 2014. Behind him, the Ascenders feature three-star prospect Jack Wegher, who ran for 646 yards, and Birdow, who rushed for 567. In total, IMG racked up 2,300 yards on the ground to power former head coach Chris Weinke's pro-style offense.

With Henry, Clemson-bound four-star wide receiver Tavares Chase and a potentially dominant offensive line, the Ascenders' new fast-paced, no-huddle offense could be unstoppable through the air at some point in 2015. The running backs have new roles to learn, too. But they should be IMG's most reliable offensive unit to start the year.

"We like that attention, all the pressure on all three of us," Jones said. "We like that stuff."

The Ascenders' rushing attack will be predicated on the read option. IMG will space the field for its playmakers on the outside and give its running backs room to operate in the middle of the field.

Success in the read option, however, is often more about making snap analysis of the defense to exploit its weaknesses rather than the actual action of running the ball.

Head coach Kevin Wright stresses patience for his running backs and has urged them to work on their initial footwork before the exchange is made. The transition was rough at first, but since they've started to click the offense has caught up to the defense.

"That does take some time, and it does take more than what you would think as far as practice time," Wright said, "but they've gotten better."

Wright's biggest takeaway from the running backs' play this spring has been the lack of turnovers. Despite the growing pains in the read option, Wright can't recall a fumbled exchange with Jones, Wegher or Birdow during any practice.

Thursday's spring scrimmage will be a chance for them to showcase their progress. The Ascenders will likely be without Chase, Henry and Nauta -- all of whom sat out practice Wednesday -- which should make the three running backs a focal point of the scrimmage's offense.

After piling up more than 2,300 yards on the ground in 2014, IMG has even loftier goals for the coming season.

"We set the standard pretty high last year," Wegher said, "so we're just trying to overcome that."

"Double the yardage," Jones says.

"Triple," Wegher shot back.

"With every new offense, there's gonna be ups and downs," Wegher says, "but we're handling it right."

Ascenders at a glance

Head coach: Kevin Wright, first year

2014 record: 10-1

Spring outlook: IMG Academy rushed for 2,300 yards last season and returns its top three running backs. The infusion of new talent from across the country, including highly touted quarterback Malik Henry, should make the Ascenders one of the nation's best teams.

Coach's quote: "I like using tempo as a weapon. I think that's part of having that in your arsenal." -- Wright

Spring game: Intrasquad scrimmage, 4 p.m. Thursday

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