Wednesday was Signing Day for college football, with defending Division-2 national champion West Florida adding 16 players — from just down the street to halfway across the Pacific.
Eight future Argonauts play on the offensive and defensive lines; three are linebackers, two are wide receivers, and one each at quarterback, running back, and defensive back.
“The fun part of it is, you know we weren’t on the road [recruiting] very much because typically, you recruit the month of December, and the great part is our recruiting was taking place while we were coaching playoff games and winning the national championship,” said Head Coach Pete Shinnick.
While not out pounding the pavement, winning and appearing on ESPN for more than seven hours over two weekends, Shinnick believes, provided exposure for the UWF Football brand and the university.
“That has probably helped us get the attention of some guys that are out of state that are looking at us,” Shinnick said. “That we probably wouldn’t have gotten had we not been in that situation.”
The approach this year — filling needs vs. going after the best overall athletes — hasn’t really changed after a national championship season.
“We’re looking for the best available guy, and sometimes that means we take a few extra offensive linemen; then we take another position or we might take a few more defensive linemen, whatever that might be,” said Shinnick. “We’re always looking for the best high school young men that we can get; and then from a transfer standpoint looking to fill whatever need to.”
Five signees are college transfers, four from junior college and one — Taylen Waller — from Southeast Missouri. Waller has already enrolled at UWF. Coming the farthest to play in Pensacola is Rocky Aitogi, a 330-pound offensive lineman from Kona, Hawaii.
“Rocky, who’s one of the bigger guys that probably we’ve gotten; a couple of these guys really gained the recognition from us playing in the national championship game,” Shinnick said.
As is the case every year, signing day for college teams and their coaches could be considered a second Christmas Day. Recruiting, says Shinnick, is just one of the multiple aspects he enjoys as a coach.
“There’s a team building part; there’s a spring ball part, there’s a constant relationship part, there’s a fall camp part,” he said. “And then obviously, playing in the national championship is about as fun as it gets. But [Signing Day] and this time of year, we’re trying to get the right fits and trying to get the right guys to build the program.”
The year 2020 will be the fifth season of UWF football, meaning the vast majority — if not all of Shinnick’s original squad will have graduated — including the nine players at the first spring practice. He was asked about the legacy the original Argos leave behind, which includes two appearances in the D-2 national championship game.
“We had a handful of guys that graduated and finished up their senior season [in 2019]; for them to be a part of both of those [championship games], I could not be prouder of them for really doing,” Shinnick said. “Buying into what we asked; doing what we asked, and getting the program to where it is right now – one of the top programs in Division-2.”
West Florida, like Valdosta State before them, is now the team that all teams in the Gulf South Conference are gunning for. Shinnick looks back to 2018, when the Argos were ranked 2nd in the nation preseason, and then injuries led to missing the playoffs.
— JD (@jdarnold44) February 6, 2020
“We kind of experienced it, I think we’re a little better prepared for it this time around,” said Shinnick. “Our guys are working hard right now, our strength staff are [sic] putting them through a great offseason program and preparing us for what we need to be able to do. Obviously, the guys we’ve got committed to us and signed today are going to add to that.”
From here, it’s on to spring practice, summer conditioning, fall camp and then kicking off a new season. Head Coach Pete Shinnick likes where his team is, thanks in large part to the extra practice time they had during the playoffs.
“We’re further ahead than we’ve ever been; we’ve got more guys returning,” Shinnick said. “So the 90 guys we have on our squad right now I feel like we’re as advanced as we’ve ever been. But we need to be. Expectations are very high, as well as what needs to get accomplished for us to be the team in 2020 that we want to be.”