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Perseverance Pays Off for Underwood

Posted Nov 25, 2013

Monday Notes: WR Tiquan Underwood never lost his faith or his positive attitude during years of off-again, on-again NFL work, and Sunday he enjoyed his best day as a pro…And other notes

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Despite bouncing around the league a bit, WR Tiquan Underwood has stayed positive and ready to seize the next opportunity
  • Fans are identifying Raymond James Stadium as one of the NFL's best venues, and the voting remains open
  • WR Eric Page is one of only two players in the NFL to rank in the top 10 in both punt and kickoff return average
These days, Vincent Jackson is a bona fide NFL star receiver, with the attendant free agency contract.  However, his career didn't immediately jump into high gear when he entered the league; in fact, he played in only seven games and caught just three passes as a rookie second-rounder in 2005.

Even in his second year, free from some injuries that slowed him as a rookie and playing in all 16 games for the San Diego Chargers, Jackson finished with a relatively modest 27 catches for 453 yards.  It wasn't until his fourth season that he cracked the 1,000-yard receiving mark and saw his career trajectory really spike upward.

It can take a while for a player to find his place in the league, whether it be as a star, a solid starter or a role player.  Jackson is willing to share this with young players on his team, or even a 26-year-old looking to shed his journeyman status and prove he is a viable NFL playmaker.

“In this league we all know you don’t get a lot of opportunities and some guys on this team have been given opportunities due to injury or whatever the reason has been, and guys are really stepping up," said wide receiver Tiquan Underwood, a 26-year-old fifth-year veteran who has been cut by three different teams, including twice by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "That’s the best way to make a name for yourself in this league. I speak to Vincent Jackson a lot and not a lot of people know that he started on special teams and [was] not getting a lot of reps, and he just continued to work hard and persevere, and guys on this team are doing that. Guys are really embracing opportunity.”

Forty-six game minutes into the Buccaneers' 24-21 win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday, an opportunity presented itself to Underwood in the form of an high-arcing spiral lofted down the middle of the field by rookie QB Mike Glennon.  The Buccaneers, trailing 21-17 a minute into the final period, called a play for Underwood that they had been saving for the right moment, and it worked like a charm.  Underwood was running a post from left to right, with cornerback Chris Houston in frantic pursuit and safety Glover Quin coming from the other side to try to help.  Underwood caught the pass in stride, staved off Houston with a behind-the-back stiff-arm and ran the second half of the field to the opposite end zone for the game-winning score.

-- WR T. Underwood scored both of the Buccaneers' offensive touchdowns on Sunday
“First off, great call by coach Mike Sullivan," said Underwood of his team's offensive coordinator.  "They gave us the courage that we were looking for. The offensive line gave Mike [Glennon] time, especially with that front four we were facing, and Mike put it right on the money.”

That opportunity arose for Underwood because a season-ending injury to Mike Williams, who is an accomplished deep-ball receiver, had pushed him into the starting lineup about a month ago.  And that opportunity was only available because the team had lost faith in their first choice as a number-three receiver, Kevin Ogletree (now a reserve for the Lions) and called Underwood back a month after letting him go.  Underwood was familiar with the process; in 2012 he had been released at the start of the regular season only to return several weeks later and eventually take over as the primary third receiver.

Underwood is semi-famous for being the player the New England Patriots replaced in a necessary roster move the night before Super Bowl XLVI.  He also spent two years shuttling between the practice squad, the active roster and the street in Jacksonville after being drafted in the seventh round in 2009, and the season leading up to that Super Bowl miss featured several signings and cuts by the Patriots.  Throughout it all, Underwood has remained unfailingly upbeat, and unwilling to complain about any seemingly tough break.

“When you’re cut, it’s part of this business," he said.  "You can either lie down or continue to work hard and fight. The way I was raised, I just continued to work. I trust in God and I trust in the abilities that he’s blessed me with.  And to finally get an opportunity – I called my uncle right after that game, I said, ‘Man, I’ve waited five years to have a performance like that, I haven’t played like that since college.’  And for it to finally happen, it just helps your confidence, it gives confidence to the coaches and also the quarterback. He’s a young guy still finding his way, so you want to be a guy that he can count on.”

Underwood caught three passes for 108 yards in that game – his first NFL 100-yard game – and scored both of the Bucs' offensive touchdowns.  On a day in which the Lions were obviously and effectively bracketing the prolific Jackson with extra coverage, Glennon needed some of his other targets to make a difference.  Underwood and rookie tight end Tim Wright (eight catches for 75 yards) did just that, and it brought the never-say-die receiver some much-deserved attention.

“I think Tiquan is an incredible story – an unselfish, humble guy who just [has] persistence," said Head Coach Greg Schiano, who also recruited Underwood to Rutgers.  "This guy just keeps coming back. That I’m really proud of, because I’ve known him since he was probably 14 years old. [He’s] just an incredible person.”

* USA Today is polling its online readers to determine their favorite NFL stadiums, and it's clear that the Raymond James Stadium game day experience remains one of the best in the country.

USA Today's poll is active now and fans can cast their ballots until Monday, December 16 at 11:59 a.m. ET.  Raymond James Stadium, which the Buccaneers have called home since its construction in 1998, is currently running fifth in the voting.  As of Monday, the top five vote-getters among NFL stadiums are:

1. Lambeau Field, Green Bay (Packers)
2. AT&T Stadium, Arlington (Cowboys)
3. Soldier Field, Chicago (Bears)
4. Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver (Broncos)
5. Raymond James Stadium, Tampa (Buccaneers)

A four-person panel that includes current NFL players Duane Brown and Kenny Stills came up with a list of 20 nominated stadiums for fans to choose among.  Each stadium has its own description to help voters make their selections.  Raymond James Stadium is described as such:

"The 'RayJay' incorporates the Buccaneers’ seafaring motif into the stadium design, including a replica of a pirate ship in one end zone where fans can hang out, order food and drinks, and duck for cover when the Bucs score and cannons start blasting. The unique layout allows for excellent viewing angles from any section. The stadium's location offers easy access to and from it to the surrounding parking areas, which are typically hopping with tailgate festivities."

* Underwood's big play erased what could have been a bad turn of events for the Buccaneers.

As the third quarter was drawing to a close, with Detroit clinging to a four-point lead, Tampa Bay's defense got a much-needed three-and-out, forcing a punt from the Lions' 36.  Sam Martin boomed a high, deep kick that seemed destined to bounce into the end zone…until first-year return man Eric Page chose to field it at the Buccaneers' three-yard line.  Page found two Lion cover men bearing down on him, hesitated for a moment and then plunged ahead for a mere two yards.

It was an obvious mistake at the time, but a quick first down and then Glennon's bomb to Underwood rendered it moot.  Schiano could be seen giving Page an (admittedly very calm) talking-to on the sideline after his decision to field the kick, but Schiano had good words for his young return man on Monday.

“Let me clarify one thing with Eric: Eric’s made some rookie errors, which we have to get corrected, but he’s also done some really good things as a returner," said Schiano.

Indeed, Page had only two chances to return kickoffs on Sunday and he got 44 yards on the first one and 39 yards on the second one.  Those ranked as the longest and third-longest kickoff returns of the year for Tampa Bay, in a game in which touchbacks render 50-75% of all kickoffs into a non-event.  Page also returned another punt on Sunday for 17 yards.

On the season, Page has a 26.6-yard kickoff return average that ranks seventh in the entire NFL.  His average of 11.1 yards per punt return is 10th on the league charts.  Page and Dwayne Harris of the Dallas Cowboys are the only two players in the NFL to rank in the top 10 on both charts.
Game Rewind: Tampa Bay Buccaneers