Head coach Victor Santa Cruz looks for many moments to smile about in the 2014 season after happily introducing the commits of 2014 at the National Signing Day press conference on Wednesday, Feb. 5. Photo credit: Steven Mercado

Azusa Pacific’s football program announced the incoming class Wednesday, Feb. 5 — NCAA football’s National Signing Day. The Cougars signed 14 total commits, including two mid-year transfers and one player who was added after Wednesday’s press conference.

The Cougars are coming off the program’s third 10-win season with a 10-2 record and their first-ever conference championship with a 9-1 conference record. Returning from last year’s team are the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year, junior running back Terrell Watson, and the GNAC Defensive Player of the Year, junior free safety Tyler Thornton. After the AFCA Division II Coaches Poll, the Cougars are ranked 27th in the nation heading into the 2014 season.

At the signing day’s press conference, head coach Victor Santa Cruz said the program is going to stay strong and continue to set the bar high.

“We’re a conference champion. We’re ranked in the country,” Santa Cruz said. “We obviously have big aspirations to become national champions and a dominant football program throughout the country, year in and year out. For us, we’re fine with those [aspirations] and until we can achieve that, we’re not resting.”

At the press conference, Santa Cruz placed high emphasis on the role the community plays in the lives of these incoming freshmen recruits.

“You, as a community, are so special. You take care of them, you embrace them, you treat them like human beings,” Santa Cruz said. “In this day and age of college football where it’s so transactional, it’s a breath of fresh air — I think a lot of these athletes get used to being transaction tools. When they come here, they’re human beings and you have a vision for their whole life way beyond college football.”

Santa Cruz recognized that another contributor to the football program’s success last season was APU’s revamped fan base, The Zu. Thanks to it, APU football games were more crowded and had a better atmosphere than ever before, said Santa Cruz.

“[It’s] added to the brand of our university where there’s a lively and exciting student body experience here,” Santa Cruz said.That makes it a lot more fun for us as coaches and obviously, our student experience with the stadium as loud as it is and as crowded as it is, I think it makes it something that is getting better and better.”

Seven of the 14 commits are linemen. Five of those seven linemen are defensive linemen, and offensive lineman Jonah Wataru originally played on the d-line in high school.

“The landscape of college football is beginning to change dramatically when it comes to tempo offenses,” Santa Cruz said. “One of the things as far as tempo offenses go … is you’ve got to have an outstanding d-line, so we added depth to the defensive line.”

According to Santa Cruz, each of the players he and the rest of the coaching staff recruited not only fit into the program through athletic ability, but more importantly, with character and attitude.

“I’m very proud of this class, very proud of the coaching staff that put this together and very proud of the community,” Santa Cruz said. “This is a brand that is very strong, yet infectious. … As we get our chance to take our show on the road across the country, to play college football and wear the Azusa Pacific name across our chest, we’re very proud of that. These young men coming in, I expect great things from them off the field and on the field.”

Looking ahead to spring football this March, Santa Cruz said he and the rest of the coaching staff are satisfied their signings will significantly add to the football program.

“We always challenge every freshman that we have and say, ‘We expect you to come in, to compete right away, to come in the type of shape that can handle college football,'” Santa Cruz said. “And we also expect our current team to continue to push it to the next level, as they have great visions to be a successful and nationally dominant football program.”