For lots of players on the Braden River High football team, this week’s preparation for the playoffs against Naples Gulf Coast is familiar territory. But for junior defensive end Taylor Upshaw, it’s uncharted territory.
Of course, it’s a microcosm of Upshaw’s season. There are plenty of first-time experiences for him.
Prior to this year, Upshaw didn’t have any college football offers.
He never faced a double-team from an opponent’s offensive line.
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He never made a tackle on the defensive side.
He never even played in a football game before.
“I put my mind to it and I was like, ‘I think I actually want to play this year,’” said Upshaw, who has 18 tackles, 4 1/2 tackles for a loss and four pass breakups in his first season playing any level of football. “I think the years before, I wasn’t ready for it. My body wasn’t as developed as it is now.”
Upshaw always had the pedigree — his father, Regan, played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — and height, but the size in the weight department was lacking.
So he bulked up, adding roughly 25 pounds to his 6-foot-5 frame and marched into the Braden River High administrative offices this past summer with his older brother, Regan Upshaw Jr., who is a preferred walk-on at Clemson and is redshirting this season, to inquire about football.
Prior to his arrival on the East Manatee campus, though, Upshaw lived in Tampa. His father received a job transfer to Sarasota about 1 1/2 years ago.
Bradenton became the new home and the Upshaws found themselves zoned for Braden River.
But Taylor isn’t just a high school student. He’s home-schooled in the way of dual-enrollment with St. Petersburg College.
“I started when I was 13,” said Upshaw, who bulked up to 245 pounds for football. “... My mom, first of all, told me I was going to do it. And I was like, ‘OK.’ We just went with it. It was a lot of work. ... She just said it was really good education and that’s why we did it.”
Once Upshaw became a member of the Pirates, he needed just a four-play highlight video from the Kickoff Classic victory against New Port Richey River Ridge to send the University of South Florida running with an offer.
To date, Upshaw has seven offers. The list started with USF and UCF, before Pittsburgh, Vanderbilt, Navy, California and Northwestern followed suit.
Clemson, where Upshaw’s older brother is headed to, is also recruiting the junior defensive end and he’s visiting the national title hopeful this weekend following the Pirates’ playoff opener in Naples.
“It really settled in after first, second, third, fourth offer,” Upshaw said. “It settled in to be like, ‘This is cool, but you need to start playing at that level.’”
That means continuing to hone his craft to prove that he can play college football and isn’t just a big kid on the field.
“When you’re that tall, playing with pad level is new,” Braden River head coach Curt Bradley said. “Having never really played in any football games, that’s the one thing that’s hardest for any big guy. It doesn’t matter if first-year player or 12th-year player, it’s pad level. He’s done a great job developing at that every week.”
Growing up, Upshaw’s sheer size brought him to the basketball court, before he realized that sport wasn’t going to net him a college scholarship. So as his body matured, football became his focus.
And this season, Upshaw is part of the rotation that Bradley employs in his defensive packages, which is dependent on what type of offensive personnel the opponent is using to determine which players line up on the field.
“By next year, it should not be, ‘He’s only played a year,’” Upshaw said. “I want to be a developed football player. I want to look like, ‘This kid’s knows what he’s doing. This kid’s been playing football.’”