Since its inception in 2015, the IMG Academy football team from Bradenton, Fla., has played opponents from 13 different states.
On Friday, Pennsylvania will become the 14th.
The (awsomely named) Ascenders will travel to Gibsonia to take on the No. 1 ranked team in the state as Pine-Richland will begin its Class 6A title defense with another Week Zero game against a team from a different state.
This game may be a little different, though. The Ascenders will bring with them a 37-game winning streak along with USA Today’s preseason No. 1 national ranking. But that’s not quite as impressive as the current players themselves.
Five-star defensive end Nolan Smith (Georgia), ranked the No. 2 recruit in the country, is joined by outside linebacker Jaleel McRae (Florida State) and inside linebacker Charles Thomas (Michigan).
The defense also includes outside linebacker Mikel Jones (ranked No. 40 player in Florida by 247 Sports) and safety Briton Allen (No. 48), both four-star recruits who have yet to commit.
Now it gets impressive. Stick with me here:
- Five-star running back Trey Sanders (No. 2)
- Five-star tackle Evan Neal (No. 3)
- Four-star running back Noah Cain (No. 14)
- Four-star guard Dontae Lucas (No. 17, Florida State)
- Four-star guard Deyavie Hammond (No. 21)
- Four-star receiver Josh Delgado (No. 23, Oregon)
- Four-star receiver Shamar Nash (No. 50)
In all, the Ascenders will haul 12 of Florida’s top 50 players and enough stars to fill their own bus to face a Pine-Richland team that will need to find its new identity very quickly.
The Rams return enough talent to be considered amongst the top teams in both the WPIAL and PIAA, but it’s impossible to not acknowledge what they have lost.
Twenty-four seniors graduated from 2017, including a plethora of talent on the offensive side. Quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Notre Dame), running backs Jordan Crawford and Kenny White and receivers Jason DeFrancisis and Raymond Falcone paced an offense that averaged 47 points per game.
The team’s strength lies in the offensive line that includes fellow Notre Dame commit Andrew Kristofic, who is ranked the No. 2 player in Pennsylvania by 247 Sports and Michael Katic (No. 19, Indiana). The line will look to protect sophomore quarterback Cole Spencer as he attempts to establish a role in the offense.
Defensively, the Rams will be led by senior Tyler King (Navy), who recorded 150 tackles along with four sacks and two forced fumbles last season. King and fellow linebacker Anthony Cerminara were both awarded all-conference players last season.
Although both teams’ season will officially begin on Friday, IMG may have a few warts already exposed.
The Ascenders lost to Columbia (Fla.) 33-30 in a scrimmage last week. The scoreboard was reset at the end of the half while the starters played the first half and the first series of the third quarter. Junior quarterback Jordan Smith totaled five touchdowns and 254 passing yards in the first half.