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IMG Academy begins prep football program

IMG Academy/Daniel Perales
From left to right, WR Clark Thomas, WR Sean Daniel, QB Michael O'Connor, WR Casey Gunderson and LB J.P. Penagos celebrate a 38-0 win after the Kickoff Classic, Aug. 24

During Chris Weinke’s whole football career, in the back of his mind, he was preparing for this moment.

Three-and-a-half years ago, when he arrived at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., many of the things he was doing were geared towards creating this moment.

This moment has arrived.

Weinke is finally a football coach, the head coach for the inaugural season for the Prep School Program at IMG Academy.

Also the IMG Academy’s Director of Football, the former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL quarterback out of Florida State by way of national power Saint Paul (Minn.) Cretin-Derham Hall, put in 18-hour days in the months leading up to the fall in making everything a reality.

So far so good, as the Ascenders have fielded a talented roster, led by Penn State quarterback commit Michael O'Connor and Alabama athlete pledge Bo Scarbrough, and have gotten off to a 3-0 start.

“We never had a dedicated football training program here,” Weinke said going back to the beginning. “We always trained guys on an individual basis in the past. But when IMG reached out to me as one of the guys for the football director position, I knew that would eventually entail a dedicated football program with the goal to launch a team.

“When I arrived, I said we would launch a high school football team within five years. We are ahead of schedule. We wanted to build the brand first and foremost through our camp program. That, coupled with the facilities we have and all the other things we can offer student-athletes, it became apparent we were in a good position to launch a high school team.”

IMG Academy is known for its unique ability to integrate academics and athletics and provide student-athletes with athletic and personal development, doing so in golf, tennis, baseball, basketball, soccer, lacrosse and track and field, in addition to football as well. With the many on-campus experts including speed coaches and strength coaches to compliment sport coaches like Weinke, IMG Academy has provided an atmosphere for athletes of all levels to maximize their abilities on their respective fields.

On the football side, IMG Academy has a great reputation for preparing college football players for the NFL Draft, while also giving these athletes a place to stay in tip-top shape during the off-season.

The high school football side began developing with camps and a 7-on-7 tournament series, and those will continue along with now the football team. Weinke was a one-man show in the football division for the first six months before members were added to his staff.

“Even when I was playing I knew I wanted to coach, so I was always a student of the game,” Weinke said. “The first note I took as a player at Florida State, I still have. My office is filled with notebooks and playbooks. I look back at my playing experiences and pull things from those great coaches I had an opportunity to play for, and then create my identity as a football coach. I’m more old-school. I’m a fundamental guy. I truly believe successful teams are fundamentally sound. That was the battle cry.”

Day In The Life Of An IMG Academy Football Player

Roughly 750 athletes attend school at the IMG Academy and live on campus in the brand new residence hall.

The football players are up and lifting weights at 6 a.m. From there, school runs from 7:30 to noon. Then it’s time for lunch with study halls and tutoring running till 2 p.m.

“Teachers come from all over the world,” Weinke said. “We seek out great teachers for our school.”

“In terms of social life, we have a 450-acre campus and a campus life department responsible for social activities. They have a prom, dances. There are plenty of options for kids to go off campus in a supervised environment, to go to the mall and movies and different places.”

After 2p.m., it’s time to focus in on the craft. The next six hours are dedicated to the gridiron. The football team has meetings before going out to the field for practice.

“We get a lot done in a day down here,” O’Connor said. “It’s so busy you don’t have time to think about anything else. By the end of the day, especially after you’ve done your homework, you plop down and fall asleep. It’s been great. It’s so awesome here.”

“It’s been great,” Scarbrough added. “Having football early in the morning, in the middle of the day and late at night is getting you used to what it’s going to be like in college. Down here the coaches are different and work you harder and you want to work hard because everyone else is working hard. By sitting in meetings for two hours and going through drills and practices I’ve never done at my old high school, just listening to what everyone has to say, makes you want to get better for the next level.”

Building The Roster & Staff

When Weinke started scheduling games for the season, he had 20 players on the roster. Now that the season is here, that total has climbed to around 50.

“We actually had kids coming here already as full-time students,” Weinke said. “They came here and went to school and trained on a daily basis when we didn’t have a team, knowing the goal was to launch a team in 2013.”

Players on the roster come from all over the United States, while O’Connor is one of a few Canadians. There’s also a player from Mexico and two from Sweden.

“Every situation was a little different,” Weinke said. “Once we established credibility through our camps, we just marketed the fact we were starting a team. People were reaching out to us. The ultimate goal is to put a good product on the field the first year and gain attention and move forward with more inquiries from kids. No question people are starting to hear about us.”

College coaches have heard as well, and programs from every level have IMG Academy and its prospects on the radar.

“I think the ultimate goal we want is to provide an environment for these kids to grow and mature and ultimately play football at the next level,” Weinke said. “That’s our whole key - to prepare these kids to play for the next level, whatever that level is.”

Led by O’Connor and Scarbrough, IMG Academy defeated Palm Beach Lakes Community HS 38-0 in their Kickoff Classic, before opening the regular season against Olympia 21-6. They then doubled up North Miami Beach 30-15, and this past weekend beat Cardinal Newman, 43-24.

Besides four-star players in O’Connor and Scarbrough, classmates cornerback Matthew Boateng and receiver Vosean Crumbie now hold Division-I offers. In the junior class, offensive tackle Tyree St. Louis already holds several offers and is ranked inside the Top247. Weinke is excited about several others and he knows his roster will continue to add talent in the years to come.

Weinke has also put together a top-notch coaching staff.

“This is my first rodeo,” he said. “First time as a head coach and part of a staff that’s preparing a team. Obviously there are challenges about that and I’m excited about it, and fortunately for me I have a great staff around me and feel good about where we’re at.

“All our coaches played the game at a high level. I have three guys on my staff that played in the NFL. Another guy that coached on the Division-I level as a graduate assistant. I have another one that played at SMU. All guys with great experience playing and all guys I’ve utilized in our camps and felt comfortable bringing on as a full-time staff.”

Quick To Build A Bond

Class-of-2015 receiver Martin Gustaffson says roughly 3,000 people play football in Sweden. The first time he watched an NFL game on television, he knew he wanted to be one of them.

A trip with the Swedish National Team to the IMG Academy during the summer made him realize that to continue his dream of playing in college and perhaps professional, he’d have a better chance of reaching his goals in Florida.

“The biggest adjustment to coming here would be the speed of the game, strategy, going from a playbook that is 30 plays to a playbook that is a legit 200 plays,” Gustaffson said. It’s an 18-hour flight from his home to IMG Academy. “Everything is bigger and faster, bigger athletes here, more depth at each position, more competition across the board.”

Joined in the states by family friend Simon Udrup, another 2015 receiver, has made the transition easier. Gustaffson’s mother was able to make the first game of the season and plans to return later in the fall. Both players’ parents have been understanding.

“It was the best decision for me football wise, but being so far from family and friends is kind of hard,” he said. “Having such a supportive family and friends back home, they want me to follow my dreams.”

The IMG Academy football team couldn’t help but quickly become a family.

“It’s been great so far,” O’Connor said. He earned a few scholarship offers attending camps with a group out of Canada, and his coach told him he needed a place like IMG to go to the next level. “We’re all really close now. Almost all we have is each other. We’re really tight. We get along. On the field we’re starting to build more chemistry and getting to know each other and we’re molding and coming together. It’s exciting because we still have a lot to improve on.”

“Being on this team I feel really comfortable around these guys,” Scarbrough said. “I’m staying with them and I’m getting to know more about them every day. We’ve come together as a family. We’re always trying to get it right.”

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