Video: Mater Dei vs. IMG Academy preview
Zack Poff breaks down the biggest game of the year to date.
To hear it from the lips of IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.)
football coach Kevin Wright on Tuesday sounded almost preposterous. Absurd. At the very least, resounding "coach speak."
"On paper, we're the underdogs," he said Tuesday afternoon.
And yet, he is speaking 100 percent the truth.
The fifth-ranked Ascenders are meeting their physical match for the first time in the last four seasons of the six-year-old South Florida school when they travel 3,000 miles across country to face defending national champion and second-ranked Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.)
Though it's not a showdown of No. 1 versus No. 2, this could very well be the biggest collection of future FBS college football talent in one high school game when the team lock horns at the Santa Ana Bowl.
IMG Academy (3-0) entered the season with 25 either 5-, 4- or 3-star recruits from its senior and junior classes alone, according to 247Sports
. That includes the nation's top-rated running back Trey Sanders
(6-foot, 215 pounds) and defensive end Nolan Smith
(6-3, 230). IMG also features the nation's No. 4 running back in Noah Cain
(5-11, 215), giving the Ascenders the most dynamic backfield tandem in the nation, both running behind perhaps the country's biggest offensive line, led by 6-8, 390-pound 5-star tackle Evan Neal
How, on any prep field, could this collection of talent be considered second fiddle? Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson just had to snicker.
"They have nothing but athletes and they have them at every position," he told the Orange County Register on Tuesday. "The problem they present is speed and size."
Mater Dei (3-1) entered the season with 21 either 5-, 4- or 3-star recruits from its senior and junior classes, including perhaps the best all-around athlete in the country in receiver/running back/linebacker Bru McCoy
(6-3, 215). The Monarchs also feature one of the nation's top junior dual-threat quarterbacks Bryce Young
and maybe the country's most complete and talented secondary, led by 5-star junior cornerback Elias Ricks
"Go down the line and they have top recruits everywhere," Wright said. "But they're just not athletic. They're so well coached fundamentally. They tackle so well; get off the ball. There's a reason they haven't even trailed in a game in a season and a half. They're as good, or better, than advertised. They're the defending national champions. I don't know how else you can spin it. Like I told our guys, for the first time since I've been here were probably the underdog on paper."
Paperwork is what cost Mater Dei a defeat to start the season.
Following a 42-14 season-opening win, the Monarchs self-reported an ineligible player on the roster. During a very busy offseason, when 11 players transferred into the school and football program, one nonstarter had already used up his eligibility.
Mater Dei had to forfeit the win. On the field it has won 19 straight, including a 42-0 triumph the following week at perennial national powerhouse Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas). That was followed up with two more shutout wins while piling up 104 points.
Young, who transferred after 2017 MaxPreps National Player of the Year JT Daniel reclassified and is now a starter at USC, went 16-for-16 in the Monarchs' last win — 56-0 over St. Mary's (Stockton). Young threw for 328 yards and four touchdowns, all to McCoy who had five catches for 186 yards.
All of it tells Wright that IMG Academy has met its match.
Now the Ascenders, winners of 40 straight, simply must play better than the Monarchs. They certainly have the defense to be in every game. Buoyed by Georgia-bound Smith (team-best 23 tackles and 4.5 sacks), IMG has allowed 14 points all season. Mikel Jones
(6-2, 208) and Florida State-bound Jaleel McRae
(6-3, 230) are two more four-star linebackers.
Wright says the defense will need to step up another level to slow down the Monarchs.
"They play in arguably the toughest league (Trinity League) in the country," Wright said. "They just destroyed Gorman. No one has really played them close for the last two seasons. They haven't trailed. McCoy might be the best prospect in the country. What he can do at that size. … He's electric and physical. He definitely pops out on tape.
"Add that all up and it's definitely going to be a challenge. A lot of fun, too."
• The game will be televised locally on Prime Ticket and on Fox Sports Florida. It will also be streamed live on the Fox Sports Go app.
• Both teams didn't play last week giving each two weeks to prepare. IMG had its showdown at fourth-ranked St. John's (Washington, D.C.) canceled due to Hurricane Florence. It's the second straight year the two powers couldn't meet because of weather. "Being in South Florida, were pretty well versed on storms," Wright said.
• Unless California rules or IMG changes its course, this will be the last time a Golden State team will play the Ascenders. Starting next season, the California Interscholastic Federation, the state's governing body, will not allow CIF teams to play squads that don't play for a state championship, which IMG maintains it chooses not to do.
• Starting IMG quarterback David Baldwin
(6-4, 220) might need to contain his emotions. He transferred from Southern California juggernaut Upland after last season (he accounted for almost 3,000 yards and 35 TDs) and earned the starting nod over fourth-year letterman Bryson Lucero
, a UAB commit. Baldwin (19 of 30, 290 yards; 136 yards rushing, 4 TDs) has made rapid improvements. "He's a Southern California kid going back home to play in front of a lot of family and friends," Wright said. "You don't have to remind kids they're going home. He had has best practice of the season today. He's locked in."
• Another high profile Southern California product on IMG Academy is Oregon-bound wide receiver Josh Delgado
, who last season had 55 catches for 960 yards and eight touchdowns at current No. 1 St. John Bosco (Bellflower).
• The previous two seasons, IMG has traveled to Southern California and defeated another SoCal power, Centennial (Corona), by the scores of 40-20 and 50-49. The latter was a 2016 contest considered one of the best played between national powers in a decade. Wright went for a two-point conversion in overtime to win it. "It wasn't a gutsy call," the coach said. "I was just tired. It was about 2:30 a.m. Florida time for us."
• Wright says the late start time Friday — 7:30 p.m. local time, which equates to 10:30 EST — won't hinder his team. "We know what we're getting into," he said.
• Though both offenses feature high-profile skill players, Wright doesn't anticipate another 50-49 game. "I would hope not," he said. "We're not an up-tempo spread team. Our hope is to just wear them out. Besides, both defenses are pretty darned good."
• Since 2002, Florida holds a 21-9 edge when playing California schools.
• McCoy and Young told the Orange County Register bucking that trend isn't why they look forward to playing IMG.
Said McCoy: "Playing such a talented team and matching up with them is really good for our team morale. We can say we went out and did this against the best team in Florida. So any team we face from here on out, we have a watermark."
Said Young: "It's not something that happens every day. With all that talent that's going to be on the field it's an opportunity I want to take advantage of. It's a great test and great way to prepare for the next level."