BRADENTON, Fla. – The IMG Academy Ascenders hit the field Thursday for a spring practice, preparing to defend their 2020 high school football national championship next fall. Rivals analyst Josh Helmholdt was on hand to take in the action and talk with several of the top college football prospects on IMG’s roster.
One of the things that is most striking when evaluating IMG Academy compared to every other high school football program is the tremendous depth the program has across the board. Rivals100 quarterback AJ Duffy replaces another Rivals100 quarterback and now Michigan freshman J.J. McCarthy under center.
Rivals250 running back Kaytron Allen is back for another season while guiding class of 2024 standout Stacy Gage (5-foot-10, 200 pounds) to eventually be his successor. Tight end Jack Pedersen just committed to Penn State. The offensive line is all Power Five prospects, as is essentially the entire defense. It is not hard to see why this was the best high school football team in the country last year.
CLASS OF 2023 RANKINGS: Rivals100
RIVALS CAMP SERIES: Info/coverage on 2021 camp series
RECRUITING UPDATES FOR 2022 PROSPECTS
Four-star running back Kaytron Allen has started setting his official visits for the month of June. The first of those trips has been set, and it will go to Georgia the weekend of June 18. Allen is also close to setting a visit with Florida, also in the month of June. He is one of several IMG prospects who will be announcing a top five later this month. One school that will not be in that top five is Ohio State. The Buckeyes were considered a top contender earlier in this recruitment, but communication between the two parties has ceased.
Rivals100 offensive tackle Tyler Booker is getting ready to announce his top five next Monday. Florida is a lock to make the cut (the Gators have an official visit scheduled with Booker for the June 4 weekend), but which other schools will join the Gators? Based on my conversation with him I think Alabama is likely, but he also listed Penn State, Texas, Notre Dame, Georgia, Ohio State and LSU as strong contenders.
Defensive tackle Nick James named a final 12 last month, and that is as far as the four-star has been able to trim his list. Official visits are starting to be set, though, with Ohio State (June 4) and South Carolina (June 25) already locked in. The Buckeyes have made a strong move in this recruitment, and James talks with head coach Ryan Day and defensive line coach Larry Johnson on a daily basis. Other schools that could be close to setting official visits with James include LSU and Texas A&M. He plans to make a decision before his senior season.
Four-star athlete Keon Sabb is also close to announcing his top five. Expect that to be released sometime this month, and there are a few schools that are starting to look likely. LSU just offered on Wednesday, but Sabb is not upset with the Tigers for making him wait. He understood the situation and said it is likely they make the cut when he trims his list. Other strong contenders for Sabb’s top five are Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Penn State.
***** PRACTICE OBSERVATIONS
IMG is loaded with hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker types. One of the most impressive looking prospects who fits that mold is four-star Jihaad Campbell. Listed as a defensive end, Campbell is tall and lean and looks like he would be better suited for roaming the flats playing in space. Either way, he is an impressive-looking player. Campbell has official visits to Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma scheduled for June, and he wants to decide this summer.
New UCLA tight end commit Jack Pedersen is a traditional, in-line tight end prospect, but he is definitely an asset in the passing game. Pedersen is a good blocker for the position and has the size (6-4, 250) to battle with defensive ends but is also sudden enough to create separation from defenders and has a soft pair of hands.
Pedersen already looks to have good chemistry with quarterback A.J. Duffy, who physically reminds me a lot of current North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell. Duffy is shorter and stockier than your typical quarterback prospect, but he spins a beautiful football. Florida State will host Duffy for a visit this weekend, and the Seminoles look to be one of the strongest contenders in this recruitment after he postponed a planned March 31 commitment announcement.
Physically, Penn State commit Drew Shelton was probably the most impressive-looking of IMG’s offensive linemen, and he plays very light on his feet. Shelton committed to Penn State last September, and it does not sound like the Nittany Lions have anything to worry about here. His commitment is solid.
A couple class of 2024 prospects to keep an eye on are running back Stacy Gage and defensive back Desmond Ricks. Gage is already up to 200 pounds after arriving at IMG at 180 pounds, and he has gotten quicker and stronger with the added weight. Ricks has all the makings of a big-time defensive back, and already holds 15 early scholarship offers.
***** CLASS OF 2023 PROSPECTS
Jordan Hall (Josh Helmholdt/Rivals.com)
Although just a sophomore, Jordan Hall has already developed into a leader of IMG’s defense. People around the program rave about his high football IQ. Hall credits a lot of his development to IMG defensive coordinator Pepper Johnson, who was an All-American at Ohio State before a long career in the NFL. The Buckeyes have not offered Hall yet, but he has had some contact with their linebackers coach.
Since he is just a sophomore schools cannot directly contact him, but Hall said he initiates contact with Clemson, Florida and some additional ACC and SEC schools frequently. He foresees himself as a 4-3 linebacker, and is comfortable playing the MIKE linebacker role. Some of his role models at the position include Luke Keuchly and Bobby Wagner.
“I have all my options open,” Hall said. “I want to go where I am wanted and where I feel is the best place for me. I am a student-athlete. I want good academics, good football and a good relationship with coaches.”
Four-star Malik Bryant is also stuck between the linebacker and defensive end positions right now. IMG lists Bryant at 234 pounds, and he lined up primarily at strongside linebacker. Considering he is just a sophomore, I could see him eventually playing with his hand in the dirt or manning a hybrid edge-rusher role.
Rivals100 offensive lineman Knijeah Harris earned his way onto IMG Academy’s starting offensive line as a sophomore. He primarily lined up at left guard, but is also very capable as an offensive center and could end up at either position in college. Fundamentally, he is well ahead of his years, which I first noticed covering The Show camp in Bradenton back in December.
Harris is one of the native Floridians on IMG’s roster, hailing from Port Saint Lucie, Fla. His family is very important to him, but Harris is also open to going out of state. In-state schools Florida, Florida State and Miami all factor in heavily early in this recruitment, but Harris is also looking to line up visits with Oklahoma, Oregon and Penn State as soon as the dead period is lifted.
One of the more interesting class of 2023 prospects at IMG is linebacker/defensive end Cameron Lenhardt, who said his sophomore season at Don Bosco High in New Jersey was significantly impacted by COVID. Now at IMG, Lenhardt is experimenting with a different position and he has attracted interest from new schools.
Lenhardt primarily played on the defensive line for Don Bosco, but has been working at outside linebacker since arriving at IMG, and is now talking with the linebacker coaches at schools like Clemson and Georgia. Lenhardt has also been speaking more frequently with Notre Dame, and he is very intrigued with the way Florida uses Mohamoud Diabate, who similarly was a defensive end that is playing more of a linebacker role.
“I like it because they use him all over as a pass rusher and in coverage. He’s an athlete who can play wherever,” Lenhardt said of Diabate.
Four-star 2023 wide receiver Carnell Tate has only played one high school season after the state of Illinois canceled the season for all high schools last fall. Tate is now at IMG, but he is not concerned about the loss of a sophomore season impacting his recruitment.
“I got plenty of offers off my freshman film, so I’m not worried about it,” Tate said.
Twenty-one schools, to be exact, have offered Tate, despite no sophomore film. The most recent came from his hometown Northwestern Wildcats, and Tate was quick to confirm Northwestern would be a strong contender in his recruitment. He listed the Wildcats along with Arizona State, Michigan and Notre Dame as the schools he keeps in contact with most frequently. His former teammate, Pat Coogan, is arriving at Notre Dame as part of the 2021 class, and he is also close with current Michigan receiver and Chicagoland native AJ Henning.
***** ADDITIONAL 2023 PROSPECTS
St. Louis native Samuel M’Pemba, the No. 12-ranked prospect in the recently released 2023 Rivals100, just arrived at IMG two weeks ago. A two-way prospect who lined up at wide receiver, linebacker and defensive end as a sophomore, M’Pemba was working at receiver on Thursday despite measuring in at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds. That freakish size/athleticism combination is why M’Pemba starts out as the No. 1-ranked athlete prospect in the 2023 class.
Another Rivals100 prospect, Francis Mauigoa, also recently arrived at IMG Academy from his home in Pago Pago, American Samoa. He did not come alone, though. Older brother Francisco Mauigoa is working out at IMG Academy this spring before he heads to Washington State after signing with the Cougars as part of the 2021 class. The younger Mauigoa, who ranks as the No. 7 prospect early in the 2023 class, is a mountain of a young man who has surprising agility for his size. This was just an unpadded practice and we did not get a full evaluation of Mauigoa, but it was clear he possesses some rare physical tools.