BRADENTON, Fla. — The world's foremost training ground for tennis, golf and soccer has ventured on to the gridiron.
IMG Academy kicked off the IMG Madden Football Academy this weekend by opening its 400-acre campus to over 100 players from 18 states.
Designed by legendary coach John Madden and directed by former Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke, the IMG Football Academy educated players on all aspects of the game, on and off the field.
During the three-day event, which serves as a prelude to the Academy's week-long summer sessions, junior high and high school athletes received instruction on everything from mental conditioning and Xs and Os to physical preparation and detailed technical input from an impressive roster of accomplished coaches.
While highly respected quarterbacks coach Terry Shea joined Weinke in working with the signal-callers, current Cleveland Browns tight ends coach Steve Hagen and former NFL running backs coach George Sefick instructed the other skill position players. Shea claims recent No. 1 NFL Draft picks Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford among those he's tutored.
Defensively, Tom Pratt, who coached Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, Chester McGlockton and former collegiate and NFL star Dan Morgan, drilled the players on fundamentals.
The camp's 7-on-7 drills, which often devolve into unscripted passing plays, were highly structured both offensively and defensively, and players received feedback after each play. The players will also receive access to digital video breakdowns of their technique that they can consult throughout the season.
If anything overshadowed the impressive level of instruction on the weekend, it was the players. A number of top recruits nationwide made their way to Bradenton.
A few top players didn't have to travel very far.
Ricky Jones from Booker (Sarasota, Fla.) made an impression at wide receiver. He showed explosive tendencies and demonstrated why he will be a major recruit in 2012. Jones was named co-Offensive MVP along with Milton quarterback Matt Floyd, the top signal-caller on the weekend.
“Matt Floyd has a big-time arm,” said Weinke. “He changes ball speed very well. He cuts grass with his feet, and has exceptional footwork moving within and outside the pocket. He will need to continue to work on his accuracy, but entered the weekend with 13 scholarship offers, and has talent and desire to prove deserving of more.”
Bayshore (Bradenton, Fla.) offensive lineman Wendel Williamson took home top Offensive Big Man honors.
"Wendel Williamson really made an impression on coach (Jim) Hanifan and me," said offensive line instructor Tom Nutten. “He was always attentive, listened well, and we saw improvement each day. He got it, and really displayed some great footwork at the end of the weekend.”
Another lineman, Tampa Catholic (Fla.) rising freshman Corey Martinez, was named the weekend's Breakout Lineman.
“Corey Martinez’s size alone at 14 years old is impressive,” Nutten said. “He is already 6-foot-3, 270 pounds with good athletic ability and a base of understanding technique needed to succeed. If he continues to use proper footwork, it will put him in better positioning, more quickly.”
Running back Mitchell Hester was the overall camp MVP.
“He’s a dynamic playmaker that can be featured in slot, has the ability to make plays downfield and has the vision and ability to change direction to be an exceptional runner out of the backfield," Sefick said. "Most importantly, he has a winning attitude and is a coachable young man.”
On the opposite side of the ball, cornerback standout Brian Poole from hometown Southeast (Bradenton, Fla.) took home Defensive MVP honors. South Florida should produce a very deep crop of players in the secondary for the class of 2012, but Poole may be the best in the state. He will also rank near the top nationally, along with Amos Leggett and Tracey Howard.
Fellow local Geovani Francois, a 6-foot-2, 240-pound defensive end with great athleticism, also made a strong impression. For Francois, being able to train at IMG after growing up hearing of its reputation around Bradenton was a special experience.
"Living in the city so long, you always hear about how top talent and top athletes train here. The reputation is that if you're any kind of athlete, and you're good, and you're a great one, you come here to train," Francois said.
"There's a lot of talent here, especially football talent. I think it's about time they put a football academy in place. That's what we deserve. That's what Bradenton's all about." Louisville and Rutgers are among the schools who have offered Francois so far.
The most dominant defensively lineman, however, was from St. Petersburg. Dante Fowler, a rising junior at Lakewood (St. Petersburg, Fla.), took home top Defensive Big Man honors after showing great explosion off the ball and a number of power and finesse moves as he worked his way past offensive linemen all weekend. He was nearly unblockable off the edge.
The less crowded, more personal setting allowed Fowler to really shine.
"It's a nice atmosphere out here," he said. "You don't have a lot of people crowding you. You just have certain people at your position."
Pratt pegs Fowler as a high-ceiling player.
"He has good quickness, his speed is good, and his basic techniques are good. He has all the tools to be a successful player at the next level. Leadership will be important in his development," he said.
Fowler claims offers from Florida, Florida State, Tennessee and others, and will likely have his pick by the time he's a senior. Like Poole, he looks to be one of the state's top players in the class of 2012.
Other notable players to make an appearance included defensive end Anthony Chickillo (Tampa, Fla./Alonso), wide receiver Andre Davis (Tampa, Fla./Jefferson), linebacker Anthony Harrell (Tampa, Fla./Freedom) and offensive lineman Zach DeBell (Tarpon Springs, Fla./Tarpon Springs). R.J. Kuck, a kicker/punter who will likely earn a scholarship, also attended.
The talent at the IMG Madden Football Academy was not confined to Sunshine State natives. California native Kyron DeFour made the trek to Bradenton and represented the Golden State well.
Hailing from Cretin-Derham Hall (St. Paul, Minn.), 2013 recruit James Onwualu turned more than a few heads with his physical play at wide receiver. Onwualu, who recently trained with Cretin-Derham Hall alumnus Michael Floyd, could be the next big prospect to emerge from the Twin Cities powerhouse.
The camp's Breakout Skill Athlete, Onwualu will be just one of the many players from the weekend to keep an eye on this fall.