Shepherd’s Gupton is one of the nation’s best
Like many of the football players that come to Shepherd, linebacker James Gupton was unheralded. After all, he was too short, too small and didn’t play at a high school with glittering records.
Now listed at 5-foot-10 and 208 pounds, Gupton was redshirted when he reported in 2013 from North Point High School and Waldorf, Maryland.
Then as a freshman in 2014, Gupton was placed alongside another too-short, too-light linebacker in Octavius Thomas.
Gupton proved to be tall enough and weighty enough to be selected as the Mountain East Conference freshman defensive player of the year. He had 69 tackles and went without significant injury to start every game.
And then came the 2015 season and Shepherd started winning games at a fast-paced rate. And Gupton and Thomas were right there in the middle of the Shepherd defense as inside linebackers.
No Mountain East Conference team could beat the nationally-ranked Rams.
Once past Charleston by 20 points in the season’s second game, Shepherd mowed down its opponents until going to Athens to face Concord, the 2014 conference champion.
Concord fell by a touchdown . . . and the Rams rode on home through their final games to finish with a 10-0-0 record, securing the No. 1 seed in the Super One Regional of NCAA Division II play.
Gupton was injured along the unbeaten ride.
He missed the Virginia-Wise game and also the Fairmont game.
When Shepherd was included in the playoffs, Gupton couldn’t play in the Rams’ first game against Indiana. And Shepherd, won, 17-13. He then missed the Slippery Rock game, which was also a Shepherd victory in the quarterfinal round of the national championship playoffs.
The second Saturday in December brought the national semifinals against confident Grand Valley State (Michigan). At overflowing Ram Stadium with its 2,000 people above capacity straining to see if the Rams could reach farther than any team in school history, Gupton was finally back.
He registered eight tackles versus the Lakers as Shepherd outlasted the nationally prominent team and won 34-32.
It was time for the national championship game, to be played in Kansas City before a record crowd of over 16,000.
Gupton was at his best. Although Shepherd’s offense encountered a virtual hornet’s nest of defenders against Northwest Missouri State, Gupton and his defensive company acquitted themselves well enough.
And the too-small linebacker from little-recognized southern Maryland was credited with 19 tackles.
For the 2016 season, Gupton had played in nine games and had 80 tackles. His most influential statistical regular-season games showed him with 14 tackles against Concord and 11 stops versus Glenville. And when he finally returned to health, he closed the year with those eight tackles against Grand Valley State and 19 tackles in the national championship game.
Gupton and Thomas are back again this season, acting as sort of anchors for a Shepherd defense that yearly gives up little yardage on the ground — whether it’s a conference game, early-round playoff game or late-round playoff duel.
A season with no injuries that sideline him should bring scads of wins for the Rams and scads of individual honors for Gupton.
Northwest Missouri State knows he can play. And so do the people who vote on the All-America teams.