The East County area could be adding two more alumni athletes to its list of NFL players next season.
Right now, the list stands at four. The first was former Lakewood Ranch High defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who played 12 seasons in the NFL. He was followed by fellow Mustang Austin Reiter, plus former Braden River High defensive back Sharrod Neasman and offensive lineman Ryan Neuzil.
Former Braden River High football players Deshaun Fenwick and Taylor Upshaw, both of whom will be eligible for the 2024 NFL Draft, could be the next to join the ranks.
Fenwick, a running back, started his career at the University of South Carolina, spending three seasons — including a redshirt season — with the Gamecocks. He had 97 rushing attempts for 523 yards and two touchdowns with South Carolina before heading west to Oregon State. Thanks to the NCAA granting all athletes an extra year of eligibility because of the COVID-affected 2020 season, Fenwick was able to spend three years with the Beavers, where he found a lot more playing time and success.
Fenwick ran for 1,516 yards and 16 touchdowns over three seasons as a Beaver. In 2023, Fenwick recorded 96 carries for 515 yards and five touchdowns while splitting carries with sophomore Damien Martinez (194 carries for 1,185 yards and nine touchdowns). Fenwick also caught nine passes for 76 yards and two touchdowns.
While he never got a grasp on the starting running back job, Fenwick always played well in the opportunities he earned. People noticed. Fenwick was invited to the 2024 Hula Bowl, an all-star showcase held in Orlando Jan. 8-13. Throughout the week, players are coached by former NFL coaches like Brian Billick, a Super Bowl winner with the Baltimore Ravens. A good showing throughout the week can earn praise from these coaches that will be passed on to current coaches during the draft process, and the top standouts can even earn invites to other All-Star games like the Senior Bowl.
Often, practices throughout the week help players more than the actual all-star game does. I can’t speak to Fenwick’s practice performance, but according to my unofficial stats from watching the Jan. 13 game itself — for a reason I can't decipher, there appears to be no official box score for the game anywhere online — he had eight carries for 23 yards. Those stats will not wow anyone, but Fenwick looked like he belonged, running with a shiftiness that made him hard to bring down despite not always getting the best blocking from his offensive line, particularly in the red zone.
Like Fenwick, Upshaw started with a different school than he finished. Upshaw, a defensive end, began his career at the University of Michigan and he stayed there five years, enough time to rack up 36 tackles (10.5 tackles for loss), five sacks and an interception. Like Fenwick, Upshaw never found himself able to crack the starting lineup, but he was a situational piece on an elite football team.
After the 2022 season, Upshaw decided he wanted to be a starter, so he took a leap of faith, leaving the National Championship-contending Wolverines to head to the University of Arizona. In hindsight, he would have received a ring if he had stayed, as Michigan defeated the University of Washington 34-13 in the National Championship on Jan. 8, but Upshaw did find the starting lineup spot he wanted.
Upshaw started all 13 games for the Wildcats, recording 31 tackles (11.5 tackles for loss) and 8.5 sacks, the most by an Arizona player since Kylan Wilborn recorded 7.5 sacks in 2017. Like Fenwick, Upshaw’s play earned him an invitation to the Hula Bowl — the same all-star game his father, Regan Upshaw, played in 1996 before being drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then having a nine-year NFL career.
Defensive stats are harder to track than offensive ones. I didn’t see Upshaw record a tackle in the Hula Bowl, but he had two noticeable quarterback hurries. He was mainly used in obvious passing situations, a role in which I believe lies his professional future.
What’s next for Fenwick and Upshaw?
The NFL draft is April 25-27. They each have a few more months to make an impression on the league’s 32 teams. Even if neither hears their name called during the draft itself, it is possible that both will end up on a team’s training camp roster. Fenwick was a consistent producer on a good Pac 12 Conference team, despite limited opportunities, and Upshaw proved that he has excellent pass-rush skills. Upshaw is also one of the most athletic players around. Reel Analytics, a sports technology company that helps coaches measure football players’ athleticism on film, said Upshaw had the ninth-highest in-game athleticism score of any player at the Hula Bowl, based on their proprietary findings.
Seeing the former Pirates on NFL rosters next season, even if they are not drafted, is not far-fetched. It happened to Ryan Neuzil, the former Braden River High offensive lineman, in 2021. Ryan Neuzil, an offensive lineman who played at Appalachian State University, was not drafted, but signed with the Atlanta Falcons as a camp body. It was there that he made an impression, and the team kept him around on the practice squad. In 2022, the Falcons signed Neuzil to the active roster for the first time. This season, he earned his first start, ending the season with three starts while seeing action in 14 games.
From watching Fenwick and Upshaw throughout their Braden River careers and checking on them in college, I've seen flashes that show me they have the talent. It is now up to them to prove it at the highest level.
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.