Welcome to another season preview to supplement the series about Akron’s quest for peace and happiness in NCAA Football 14. For any new readers, feel free to check out the about page of the site to read about this whole project and catch up on the past installments.
We started a new tradition last season where readers were welcome to submit content to go into these newsletter posts. It ended being a stroke of good luck as Akron marched towards a championship. That tradition continues this year with another season preview post.
Guest writer Ian Newcomb steps up again and delivers a gem of a piece to introduce us to the backstory of DE James Smith. It is written as a 2026 Sports Illustrated cover piece as part of their college football preview.
We have another exciting Zips roster for this year, which I’ll detail at the end of the post today. I’m loving the ability to dive deeper into the backstory of our beloved players though and Ian really does an amazing job making me feel for our star defensive end in this piece.
Unfinished Business: Why a National Title Isn’t Enough For James Smith
It’s just after 5:30 in the morning as Akron strength and conditioning coach Dutch Arnold gets to his office on campus. Less than a week after winning the BCS Championship Coach Arnold does not expect his most dedicated players to start showing for another hour or so, but as he gets settled behind his desk he hears the distinct sound of someone lifting in his weight room. He already knows who it is as he walks into the room and greets James Smith, a three-year starter and anchor of the Akron defensive line.
“Hey James, whatcha up to?” asks Arnold.
“Hey, coach. I was talking to my grandpa yesterday and we both agreed my burst wasn’t 100% last game so I’m getting in some extra work before we start today. Next season is gonna be here before we know it.” James replies.
“So you’re coming back next year? Not going to declare?” Arnold seems shocked.
“Nah coach,” says James “I’ve got some unfinished business in Akron.”
Greater Northdale, Florida
“Have you ever seen a gator up close?” That’s what James Smith asks me as I meet him at his grandparent’s home in Florida, where he spends his summers working the family business alligator farming, and occasionally, alligator removal. It’s early, the sun barely peeking up over the palm trees as the question hits me. I shake my head no, and he cracks a small smile. “Oh well get ready to see some. And try not to get in the way. Grandpa doesn’t like people who get in the way.”
Having gotten to know James over the last few seasons I had always been fascinated with him growing up with his grandparents and learning his grandfather’s craft of gator raising. Not only was James a star athlete but he was a double major in biology and agriculture. This hard-nosed, tough-as-nails, gritty young man had to have gotten his sense of self and work ethic and athleticism from somewhere, so when he invited me down to Florida to visit his family’s farm he spent summers working on, I immediately accepted the offer to see first hand what made James Smith James Smith.
As James leads me around the side of the house and out back to the farm we are greeted with the sounds of dozens of hungry gators. His grandfather is already hard at work preparing large buckets of feed for his gators. “You probably want to stay back here, and you might want to get comfortable. We don’t break till lunchtime.” Smith gives me a nod and walks away. Just like that he’s off. For the next six hours, the two men tend to the gators, from feeding them to cleaning their pens to harvesting eggs. “How do you think I got so big, man? Gator eggs.” Smith says with a wide smile, holding up a clutch of eggs he is bringing into the house for his grandmother to prepare. “You’re staying for lunch, right? Grandma D is gonna be disappointed if you don’t!”
After a meal of gator omelets and lemonade, James and his grandfather take care of the dishes and head back out to finish up with gators before it gets too warm. Smith’s grandmother invites me into the living room for another glass of lemonade. I kindly accept the offer and she leads me down the hall from the kitchen. Photos line the wall, many of James and his grandfather, his grandparents together, cousins, aunts, and uncles. At the end of the hallway, one photo, in particular, stands out. A young man and woman hold their baby, all three close, all three smiling. “That’s the last time they were all together.” Grandma D says, noticing me looking at the picture. “Three days later our Rudy was killed.”
“Rudy?” I ask her. I had been covering Akron for a few seasons and had grown to know James Smith well, but this was the first time I had ever heard of this much detail. It was known that he had been raised by his grandmother and grandfather after his parents had passed away, but that was about as much as anyone knew.
“Yeah James’ father. I know James isn’t one to talk about him much so I suppose I’ll have to fill you in.”
Rudolph “Rudy” Smith was a local legend. A three-year high school letterman in football and basketball, Rudy Smith was primed for stardom. Not only did he have a scholarship to local USF for football, but he had a bonus scholarship for academics. After graduating high school and marrying his high school sweetheart, Smith welcomed his son James into the world. Redshirting his freshman season gave Rudy time to make the Dean’s list for both fall and spring semesters, and his coaches and classmates knew that next season with him was going to be special. But that season was not to come. On a quick walk to the store for more diapers for young James, Rudy was struck by a drunk driver, killing him instantly. “It broke us. We had known Rudy since he was six.” Grandma D has tears in her eyes. “He and Loretta (James’ mother) were inseparable, and I…” her voice cracks, “I don’t think she ever recovered.” She takes a breath and then looks at me. “Oh, Loretta…”
Loretta Johnson was the daughter of James and Dorris Johnson and the younger James’ mother. The only child of the couple, James and Dorris swore to each other not to spoil their child, and when she was old enough to walk, her father began teaching her his trade. By the time she met Rudy in the first grade, Loretta had already raised a dozen gators of her own, and when Rudy tried to tease the first week of school, she “popped him the nose and knocked him on his butt” Grandma D recalls affectionately. From that moment on, the two became best friends. “I think Rudy fell in love with her that first day. That boy would have done anything for her, but she wasn’t easily impressed and she made him work for it. Oh boy, she made him work.” Dorris says to me. Loretta pushed Rudy to be better and better, from the classroom to the football field. They would study together, and when they both began playing sports, they practiced together. “Rudy would never admit it but there’s a reason he got that football scholarship and not basketball. Loretta broke his ankles day in and day out.” Grandma D beams as she remembers her daughter’s skill with a basketball. Eventually, Loretta even convinced her father to let Rudy lend a hand with the gators. “James was always skeptical of that boy. I mean, it’s a boy after his little girl, why wouldn’t he be? But seeing those two work together, he knew that they had something special.”
“So who do you think the younger James takes after the most?” I ask.
“That’s tough. He has his father’s hair and eyes, but he definitely has Loretta’s smile and personality.” Grandma D pauses for a moment, then adds “hard to say but I think he’s a perfect mix of the two. They were both so smart, so talented. They would be so proud.”
“What happened to Loretta, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Cancer.” Grandma D says, voice shaky. “She hadn’t been well after Rudy’s death. Her heart was shattered, but she kept it together for James. She dropped out of college and started working full-time, spent weekends here helping her father. But right after James’ tenth birthday, she started getting sick, a cold that just wouldn’t go away. We finally convinced her to go in and see a doctor, but it was far too late. She was gone two months later.” Grandma D looks away, tears streaming down her cheeks. “That’s just the way life is.” She finishes. We pause, and after a moment passes she begins again, changing the subject to her grandson. Grandma D tells me about his first game of football ever and how he scared the opposing team’s quarterback so much that the kid “quit football for life in the third quarter.” I learn that much like his parents, James easily excelled both on the field and in the classroom. “He doesn’t seem like it, but that kid is the biggest science nerd in Florida, and we have NASA down here.” Grandma D brags. She tells me that was the thing Loretta was happiest about “She knew he was going to be good at sports like her and his dad, but she was so happy she didn’t have to press him to study like she did Rudy.” Our conversation drifts from her family to mine to the finer points of cooking alligator to the perfect way to make homemade lemonade.
Grandma D tells me more stories of James’ early knack for both animals and athletics and how he’s always found comfort in the animals. “When he (James) was little he took an immediate loving to the gators. As soon as his grandpa let him he was out there gathering eggs, cleaning pens, and raising his own.” She tells me to ask him about Betsy, his very first alligator, his first time gathering eggs, and how many times a day his grandfather tells him he’s messed something up. “I think that’s why he loves playing up at Akron. Coach Luke’s way of calling out his players, not allowing the wrong way, it reminded James of home.”
The day winds on and both the James finish up their work. Grandma D gets up to go prepare dinner, and the elder James goes to lie down for a bit of rest after working. I find myself sitting in the living room with the younger James. “Did Grandma D talk your ear off? Shoulda warned you but you’re a reporter so I figured you’d be fine.” He says, cracking a big smile that is almost a mirror of his mother’s smile in the photo I saw earlier. I nod and say, “Yeah, she wanted me to ask you about Betsy. Who’s that?” James’ eyes light up. “My girl! You want to meet her?”
James leads me back outside. We walk through the alligator pens, towards the back of the family property, and up to a gated pond. “Just stay behind me, she can be nervous,” James says. He opens the gate and we walk to the edge of the pond where a 14-foot, 600-pound alligator is resting. “Don’t worry, she ate today so she should be pretty calm,” James assures me. “I got her when I was about three,” he says over his shoulder “and it was love at first sight. She was fierce and grandpa was gonna cook her up because she ate her brother one day. But I saved her, and he told me if that’s the case I gotta raise her and take care of her. And look at her now! Isn’t she pretty?” I’m filled in on the entire backstory of Betsy and every detail about how millions and millions of years have gone into making “this gorgeous girl”. James and I talk about Betsy, about other gators, about football, and about his family. I tell him that his grandmother told me about his mom and dad, and some of the stories of his childhood.
“So with all that, and all this love for your family down here, why are you coming back to Akron?” I ask.
James steps back from Betsy and turns around. “I made a promise.”
“Yeah,” he continues, “I promised my mom that no matter what, I’d get my degree. She always told me she knew I’d be something special, but from the time I was little she always made me promise I would finish school, so that’s what I’m doing. ” We hear Grandma D call out to us that dinner is ready and James leads the way back to the house. As we walk back, James tells me that he has 12 hours of credits needed for his biology degree and 10 for his agriculture degree and how he thinks that he can handle a bigger course load during the season so he can spend the spring preparing for the draft. “But until I walk across that stage to get my diploma,” he tells me “I’ve got unfinished business up in Akron.
Let’s win some games this for Rudy, Loretta, Grandma D, and Betsy! I’m already feeling myself pulling for James Smith more than ever. The good news is that James will have an amazing roster around him once again in Year 14. There seems to be a decent shot that we can run the table again for James and his family.
Year 14 Offense
Our offense, believe or not, is probably our best ever. Last year was an amazing year with lots of high-scoring games, but it wasn’t always a perfect offense as Leonard Sims found himself turnover-prone at times. He has a better line and better weapons around him this year to go along with his own improvements.
We have many returning favorites from our usual cast of stars like Brad “Uncle” Smith, Roger “The Cool Man” Cooley, and Keith “King Me” King. There are new starters entering the lineup this year too though and I’m quite curious to see how they fit into our scheme.
TE John McCoy has been buried on the depth chart behind Eric Fagan and Ryan Gatewood for the past two seasons but he has his chance to shine this year. Oddly enough, he seems like a perfect amalgam of those two. Hailing from Oklahoma, McCoy provides a nice dose of receiving ability and blocking ability to go with his 6’6” frame. I’m excited to see if he’s the tight end that finally shines in our offense. I already imagine him being a future top NFL draft pick.
Randy Gore didn’t start at WR as a freshman but he still found ways to show us that he is very special. As our star kick returner in Year 13, he had two return touchdowns in a single game to help propel himself to win a national award for Returner Of The Year. He’ll be phased out of those duties this year so he can focus solely on his job as a slot receiver. I am expecting a huge year out of him.
Year 14 Defense
The defense from last year’s championship run will go down in history as one of the best ever. Oddly though, they were a defense without one true star that we’ll remember most fondly. Everyone stepped up and was amazing.
We lost a number of those starters coming into this year so we have a few more holes than usual.
Our linebackers are a little bit green. For instance, we have a freshman starting on the team for the first time in years there. I’m psyched to see how he develops. Could he be our next James Smith?
Our freshman Richmond Hamby not only has a tremendous name but he has a lot of potential for being such a young player. He came to us from Vienna, VA along with his high school teammate DE Brent Byers. Hamby’s greatest strength is his 99 acceleration so he should be able to blow up plays with some frequency off the edge this year.
It’s weird to call Quentin Vaughn a step down from what we’re used to. The fact is that our CB2 has been rated 95+ for the last three years so his 91 rating is a little lower than what we’ve had. That being said, he had an outstanding freshman year and has great speed and acceleration. It’ll just be interesting to see if his coverage skills and awareness cause some broken assignments at times this year.
If you want a full breakdown of the roster that includes backups at those positions, here is a spreadsheet that shows just that, though this does not note which players are redshirting in Year 14.
Year 14 Schedule
Twitch stream party night on Friday!
Oddly enough, I’m sending out this Preview article after the season technically started last night on Twitch. It was a small skeleton crew for an Election Night special where we distracted ourselves from the world by watching some of the Zips. I’ll give a recap of what happened in that stream when we start Friday’s stream this week.
On Friday, we’re back to starting at 8:00 PM EST and going for a few hours as we watch games from the second half of the regular season. We’ll then conclude the year with a stream next Tuesday. This is the official stream schedule for the rest of Year 14:
Here is a link to my Twitch channel if you’d like to hang with us. Regardless, expect the posts about Year 14 to come within the week as we try to defend our title and extend our winning streak.
Please, be kind and zip responsibly.
See you Friday!