The nation’s No. 1 tight end transferred from Georgia to a national juggernaut

Former Buford star Isaac Nauta is the nation's No. 1 tight end prospect this year.

Bradenton, Fla. — The nation’s No. 1-ranked tight end sees a completely different world at Florida’s IMG Academy compared to what would have been his senior year at Buford.

Isaac Nauta, who is one of UGA’s top remaining targets for this year’s class, has undergone a series of physical tests at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute on IMG’s campus. An IMG parent with a son in another sport at the school approximated the cost of that advanced physical testing for a non-student at $3,000.

Nauta had a Gatorade bottle in his hand the other day. His face was on the label.

“I can name off 20 things that are different here for my senior right away than what it would’ve been like at Buford,” Nauta said.

Isaac Nauta’s locker has a digital nameplate at IMG. (Jeff Sentell / AJC)

His face appears on a video board above his locker.

“It was pretty much over for me when I saw that locker room,” Nauta said. “That all but did it for me.”

With the lights off, that room gives off an eerie neon blue glow in hushed tones. That’s the signature color for his new team. He’s an Ascender now. Even his new team’s mascot is a one-of-a-kind.

The varsity football student-athlete package is listed at at $70,000 per year on the IMG website. That document also lists up to about $6,500 in refundable and non-refundable fees.  IMG Academy is a platform for athletes to reach the next level and they are offered almost every imaginable avenue to excel on the college level.

Almost every athlete on campus is on some form of financial aid. That’s the term as opposed to a scholarship. That’s especially true for the football team. That program is in its third year and those student-athletes receiver a higher percentage of aid than other established sports on campus.

The football stadium has its own video board. During its preseason opener, that screen featured a live feed with replays plus an interactive guess-what’s-under-the-cup game and dance cam.

This is a high school? Nope, this is IMG Academy. It boasts an array of facilities that dozens of NCAA Division I and Division I-AA would trade straight-up for in an instant.

“If you come here our goal is to give the athlete the absolute best in every facet of what they will need to succeed on the college level,” IMG Academy Co-Managing Director Chip McCarthy said.

Nauta’s football coaches just coach football. There’s not even a hint of academic instruction or fund-raising or washing uniforms or overseeing weight training programs. Their duties do extend to monitoring their grades and mentoring them in their personal lives. They will even attend class with players to ensure they meet their academic obligations.

IMG’s pristine stadium seats about 5,000 but includes a large video board. (Jeff Sentell / AJC)

The team utilizes a 40,000-square-foot fieldhouse and a-10,000 square foot weight room that all but features a squat rack for every 3-to-5-star recruit in the program. Buford was a Georgia high school powerhouse, but Nauta now plays for a national juggernaut.

Under Armour is an official corporate sponsor for IMG and its brand is visible everywhere. Nauta estimated that every starter his football team has a legitimate NCAA Division I-A offer.

“Every day and even on Gameday this place is different than what I have known,” Nauta said, noting everything from class structure and schedule to practice methods.

Nauta is the top-rated tight end, but the nation’s No. 1 quarterback is in his huddle, too. They are several other Top 5 recruits at their spot. There’s at least 75 stars among all those first-teamers. The goal for the football program is to play a national schedule and earn a mythical national championship.

McCarthy said the football staff is advised to lay off in-state students. If a talented Florida student-athlete is interested in IMG, they are advised to go through admissions first.

“We make no bones about recruiting nationally,” McCarthy said. “We are a for-profit institution. We’re a  business. We call it sales. Other people call it recruiting in the high school space but we call it sales. We’re selling our programs. We’re selling our services and selling our offerings. It is our normal course of business for over 35 years and we’re not going to change our motto.”

McCarthy said every private school recruits to some extent.

“We’re the only ones in the country that admit it,” McCarthy said. “As far as I am concerned we are the most honest about it. Folks may not like it, but we are honest about it.”

IMG’s 30,000 square foot fieldhouse features a 10,000 square foot weight room. (Jeff Sentell / AJC)

IMG started in 1978 as a full-time tennis boarding school. Its now a launch pad for excellence in virtually every sport. That’s paired with a rigorous academic curriculum and physical and mental conditioning programs. There were six selections in the last NBA Draft with IMG ties.

The alumni and trainees are credited with everything from three Heismans to 32 Olympic medals on the school’s web site. There are 20 multi-sports fields on the campus and that’s not counting the 50-plus tennis court and four full-sized baseball courts.

The  football facility joins in with the crown jewels of campus that also include a three-story and 70,000-square foot academic center and pristine dorms. A steel drum band in a courtyard was poised to entertain newly-arriving students at one dorm over the weekend.

Nauta has been on campus for most of this year and can already be seen as a billboard for the program. His body type has already changed with those programs. He’s leaner and he’s much faster than when he arrived at IMG.

“I’ve been here a long time and seen a lot of top athletes come through here in every sport, but it is very rare you see a young man that has all of that plus the tremendous character and leadership skills he clearly possesses,” McCarthy said. “He is a great student also who also takes advantage of every academic benefit we offer here at IMG and he does very well. We’ve got a few truly great kids across the board in every sense of the term and he would be one of them.”

Jeff Sentell covers UGA recruiting for and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on who’s on their way to play Between the Hedges.


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