UWF Football seeks a 2nd Division II crown
If it’s August, it must be time for fall camps to open at all levels of college football. The University of West Florida is preparing for 2022, holding its first in-person media day in three years on Tuesday.
“We would say our 2021 team was really good, but if you’re playing at your best you’re not as dialed in as you need to be,” said Head Coach Pete Shinnick. “Anybody can beat anybody; that’s kind of been a little bit of the reminder, a little bit of the drive for this year.”
UWF’s defense of its 2019 Division-2 national championship – the Gulf South Conference did not play in 2020 due to COVID-19 – fell short in ’21. The Argos went 9-2, losing to Newberry 33-30 in overtime in the first round of the playoffs in the final game at Blue Wahoos Stadium.
“Any time you lose your last game and you lose it the way we did in overtime, and you lose it with mistakes that you control — I mean, that one lingers,” said Shinnick. “We have a saying, ‘You’re going to hurt, you’re going to learn, you’re going to move on.' That’s a loss, OK? ‘You’re going to enjoy, you’re going to learn, you’re going to move on.’ That’s a win. I’d say the hurt still lingers a little bit, but moved on and learned, definitely.”
Shinnick is entering his 6th season on the field with the Argos, after starting the program from scratch in 2014. He’s 44-19 at UWF, and 147-65 overall here, at Azusa Pacific, and North Carolina-Pembroke, the latter which he also founded. He says the challenge this time of year is blending the various talents that players bring to the field.
“Now you get to a place where it’s like, ‘OK, this guy’s in, let’s call more of this; when this guy is in let’s call more of that,” he said. “It’s been fun to watch what each guy excels at, and then try to figure out how do we put him in when we go [on] drives and situations like that — how each one of them fits into that.”
In college football, change is the common denominator. Players come and go, and UWF has undergone some major changes in the past off-season. Perhaps the highest-profile change was the departure of quarterback Austin Reed, who led the Argos to a pair of national championship games. Finding a replacement for Reed, who’s now at Western Kentucky, has been a top priority.
There are six quarterbacks in camp, with three appearing to be the leading contenders — Byron Jarrett, Michael Rich Jr., and Brett Nezat.
“Byron’s been working with the [starters] probably more than anyone else, but there’s still areas for opportunity for the other guys,” said Shinnick. “[We’ve] still got a competition going on and still trying to see who’s going to take control of that thing. It’s early – that’s the fun of this part of the year. We’ll find out exactly where we are, and we’ll find out exactly what our guys can do.”
Besides quarterback, the emphasis on offense has been how to incorporate new players, from high school recruitment and transfers from other colleges, into one cohesive unit. Center Dalton Simpler has made two trips to the D-2 national title game, and is hoping for a third.
“[I] got here in 2017, and that’s the first year we got to the [national championship] game, so it’s been really cool to watch the program start from the ground up, and become what it is today,” said Simpler. “In high school, we were a 1-A high school and didn’t have a whole lot of competition. So whenever I got here I really had to work hard and build myself to compete at this level.”
Joining Simplar was wide receiver David Durden, who added that preparing for a game and a season goes beyond the field and the structured practices.
“We’ve been putting in extra work both on and off the field with the quarterbacks, whether it be going and throwing [pass] routes on our own, breaking down a little film, asking and answering questions they have, and just trying to build relationships outside of football,” he said. “That’s so important. That way, the quarterback can talk to us in certain ways, you know, lead us certain ways.”
There are more questions on the defensive side of the ball, with numerous holes to fill from last year’s team. Aidan Swett, a fifth-year defensive lineman, likes what he’s seen so far.
“Yeah, it definitely elevates the level of our program," he said. "Obviously, we’re trying to bring in talented guys. Just trying to get t hem to buy in and get everybody on the same page is the toughest part. But it’s just going to make our program better. We’ve got a lot of new pieces, we’ve still got some leaders on defense, we’ve just got to step up [and] show guys the way to go.”
For senior defensive back Sharod Oliver, playing at a new venue at Pen Air Field is part of the new era that Coach Pete Shinnick alluded to earlier.
“I actually like it at Blue Wahoos [Stadium] also, but I think just playing at home is going to bring out more students and more people around the area. It’s a good start for UWF football at its home grounds,” said Oliver. When guys get here, they see that it’s different from either coming from either a [junior college] or a different school. So, I think they actually buy in because of the culture, and they actually like it here.”
West Florida’s 2022 campaign kicks off September 3 against the Warner University Royals from Lake Wales, Florida. It’s the first of five home games to be played at Pen Air Field on the UWF campus, and Shinnick expects more of the same excitement as with last year’s first campus game.
“We’ve got close to 4,000 seats right now, I think it’s going to be a completely different vibe, and I really think the energy is going to be a little different,” he said. “Now we’re going to have fans on both sides [of the field] really tight-knit. I think it’s going to be a different level of energy and a different level of noise, that’s only going to fuel us to go out and play great football.”
West Florida enters camp with the No. 2 ranking in the NCAA’s “way-too-early look” at the preseason D-2 Power 10 behind only reigning national champ Ferris State and 11th in the American Football Coaches Association’s Division II preseason Top 25.