The University of West Florida heads into its third year as the second-ranked Division-II team in the nation, in the preseason top 25 poll from American Football Coaches Association. The team held its annual Football Media Day on Wednesday.
Texas A&M Commerce – who beat the Argos 37-27 in the Division II title game last December – sits atop the poll. Minnesota State, Indiana (Pa.), and Fort Hays State round out the top five. From the Gulf South Conference, UWF is joined by West Alabama at number 12 and 19th ranked West Georgia.
“We know that’s based on last year; we’re excited that people view us that way,” said Head Coach Pete Shinnick. “We like the ranking we think it’s neat, great recognition for us. But we’ve got to go out and play this season and be the best that we can be.”
Speaking to the media and team boosters at the Argo Athletic Club, he says he gives high marks to the effort so far in training camp.
“I love the competition that we’ve had; I think we’re getting better,” Shinnick said. “’We’re not perfect, we’re not ready to play a game and that’s good because we don’t have to. But I like the progress that we’re making, and that’s really staying in line for what we’re trying to accomplish, and kind of what we’ve learned over the years.”
One of the main challenges, says Shinnick, is getting back to the level achieved in 2017 as a relatively unknown, second-year program. Heading into 2018, they’re now – known – especially in the Gulf South Conference.
“We feel like we play in the toughest conference in the county,” said Shinnick. “We feel that if you can win this conference or be close to the top of this conference you can compete at a national level. You learn a lot in our conference that prepares you for the national level, and I think that showed up last year.”
“Now we feel ‘OK, now we bring that same energy that we had on that run, bring it to this season and carry over. Don’t let it die there; just let the Cinderella story keep going,” said defensive back Marvin Conley – a Division-II All-America last year, and on this year’s preseason All-GSC team.
“We’re different because we obviously lost a couple of people [to graduation], but we’re getting better every day,” Conley said. “We’re coming together, everybody buying in. We’re flying to the ball, running to the ball; just doing everything the coach tells us to do. We’re taking a step each day.”
On the offensive side of the ball, West Florida is considered to have one of the deepest wide receiver corps in D-2. Something not lost on either Coach Pete Shinnick, or quarterback Mike Beaudry.
“Early on in the season, we try to play probably more wide receivers than anybody else, and I think we’ll be as deep as we’ve ever been,” said Shinnick. “I think that group’s pretty good.”
“I can’t complain,” said Beaudry to laughter. “It makes my job that much easier. They find ways to get open, they always make me look good. Sometimes I’ll throw a ball that isn’t the best looking to make a play on it, so I appreciate them every single day.”
In the wake of the tragedy at the University of Maryland – where lineman Jordan McNair died of heat stroke in May and head football coach D.J. Durkin and members of the athletics staff were placed on administrative leave – Shinnick talked about the culture at UWF.
“The number one goal for the program is to help each guy become a better husband, father, employer [and] employee, and we don’t stray very far from that,” Shinnick said. “The number two goal is to help them graduate in four, four and a half years. Number three is play great football. I’ve read the accusations on some of these other programs; I cringe at how guys are treated but it’s not how we do it.”
Two of West Florida’s opponents are also ranked in the pre-season. The Argonauts open the 2018 campaign at Bayfront Stadium on Thursday, August 30th against 22nd-ranked Carson Newman. The following week, UWF travels to Wichita Falls, Texas – a 14-hour bus ride -- to play number 11 Midwestern State. In all, seven opponents in 2018 are either ranked or received votes in the pre-season.