GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Jim McElwain likes having a high school football powerhouse in his own backyard.
He and his staff heavily recruit IMG Academy, a private boarding school and training facility in Bradenton, Fla.
IMG Academy fielded its first football team in 2013, and every year top recruits from around the country transfer to the school.
“They’re getting great people in there,” McElwain said at SEC spring meetings. “The concept is fine. They do a great job. Hopefully one of these days they like us, too. I don’t know.”
Florida hasn’t signed an IMG player in the last three recruiting cycles, and it doesn’t look like that will change in the 2017 class.
Florida State and Miami have landed multiple prospects from the school, as have Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss and Texas A&M.
Add Clemson, Michigan State, Ohio State and Oregon to the list, and six of the seven teams to reach the College Football Playoff have gotten talent from IMG Academy.
There have been a few possibilities for the Gators, but it hasn’t worked in their favor. McElwain tried to flip quarterback Deondre Francois (Florida State) and offensive tackle Tyree St. Louis (Miami) at the end of the 2015 cycle, but they stuck with their commitments after officially visiting Florida.
The Gators secured pledges from defensive tackle Shavar Manuel and safety Spencer Perry in their last class, but both de-committed. Manuel could not qualify academically at Florida and signed with the Seminoles, though he failed to meet enrollment requirements at Florida State as well.
This year the Gators were unable to land IMG targets Grant Delpit (LSU) or tight end Tre’ McKitty (Oregon). Florida still filled its needs at McKitty’s position last Saturday.
While IMG Academy is in Florida, the majority of its players are not from the Sunshine State. Delpit, for example, is from New Orleans and he was a Hurricane Katrina refugee in Houston. So the Gators aren’t necessarily missing out on home-grown talent, but McElwain wants to capitalize on having the nation’s best prospects within driving distance.
He may have some luck in the 2018 recruiting cycle.
Elite linemen from IMG high on Gators
McElwain seems to like his chances with Reuben Unije, a 4-star offensive tackle in 2018 from IMG Academy.
The 6-foot-6, 300-pound prospect visited Florida last month for the first time.
“Everything,” Unije said when asked what he liked about the trip. “The real question is what’s not to like about Florida? They won 10 games last season. They have new quarterbacks and Jake Allen (committed). They’re getting their O-line right. It’s DBU and has one of the best defenses in the nation. And I enjoy the coaches.”
Unije said the coaching style of Gators offensive line coach Mike Summers appeals to him. Summers is his primary recruiter.
“There’s a lot of coaches that yell and curse at you all the time,” Unije said. “They might know what they’re doing, but to a young kid, sometimes all that yelling isn’t really productive. You won’t get through to them that way. It’s not constructive criticism.
“With Coach Summers, he’s more easygoing. He can correct what you’re doing wrong without cursing you out. It’s easy to learn from him. He’s already taught me a few things about zone blocking.”
Rivals just ranked Unije as the No. 17 overall prospect for 2018. He met with McElwain at the end of his visit and had an interesting exchange with him.
“As soon as I walked in, Coach McElwain told me, ‘You know you’re going to be Gator, right? Whether you know it now or not. You’ll look good in orange and blue.'” Unije said. “I was like, ‘OK, this is a good start.’
“It shows that he really likes me. I’m really high on their list, and they’re high on mine.”
Unije also mentioned Alabama and N.C. State as schools standing out to him. He has no timetable for a decision.
Florida also in contention for two more 2018 recruits from IMG Academy, offensive guard Curtis Dunlap and wide receiver Brian Hightower.
Zach Abolverdi is the Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.