Tiquan Underwood has been to three previous NFL training camps, all of them in Jacksonville, and each one ended differently.
In the summer of his 2009 rookie season, Underwood, a seventh-round pick by the Jaguars, showed enough to make Jacksonville's practice squad and, a few weeks later, the active roster. In 2010, he moved more smoothly directly from the preseason onto the 53-man regular-season roster. Last year, the Jaguars waived Underwood at the end of August and he eventually ended up with the New England Patriots.
Underwood played three games as a rookie, another 10 in 2010 and then eight more last fall for the Patriots. He has, in that sense, "made it" each year, shown enough in August to be on an active roster in December. In another sense, however, he's still trying to make it in the NFL, to find a more permanent landing spot and a more significant role on Sundays. The upbeat former Rutgers player says he has learned from his previous camp experiences what it will take to reach that goal.
"This is my third team now in four years," he said on Monday, after his fourth training camp practice with his third team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "Now, this being my fourth year, being somewhat of a vet, I just try to take it day by day. Don't worry about anything and leave it all out on the field each and every day."
The calendar hasn't quite flipped to August yet, and Underwood has not earned a 53-man reservation with the Buccaneers just yet, but neither has he done anything to hurt his chances. The speedy 6-1, 183-pound wideout is off to a hot start in Tampa, making several eye-opening downfield plays through the first half-week of workouts. Greg Schiano, who was Underwood's coach at Rutgers and is again now with the Buccaneers, says the important thing about that strong start is that it puts Underwood in position for a strong finish.
"Well, he's had a good first four days of camp," said Schiano. "He's made some big plays, 'chunk plays,' which are critical in offensive football. Four days does not a camp make, but you have to have the first four in order to have the second. Right now, he's off to a good start."
The Buccaneers weren't pleased to see Arrelious Benn sustain a knee injury during the first practice of training camp, obviously, but it did add another level of interest to the competition at the receiver position. Schiano said Benn will miss at least a couple weeks and potentially more with his injury, shaking up a depth chart that was already in flux. While Benn works on his recovery, the coaching staff sifts through practice tape to see which of a green group of wideouts is best suited to fill that absence. In addition, wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe (30 catches in 2011) was released on the Bucs' reporting day last Thursday, further adding to the opportunity for those young pass-catchers.
The Buccaneers do return their top two pass-catching wideouts from last year in Mike Williams and Preston Parker, and free agent diamond Vincent Jackson is clearly a big part of the team's offensive plans. After that, however, and with Benn sidelined, Underwood is competing with a group of six other receivers who have a combined 67 regular-season NFL receptions, 59 of them belonging to Sammie Stroughter.
There are other interesting candidates in that group, of course, including Stroughter and 2011 holdover Ed Gant, and special teams play could factor into the final roster decisions. For now, Underwood is simply trying to make a good impression by studying hard and taking that knowledge onto the field.
"I'm just getting more comfortable with the playbook," he said. "When you're comfortable and you know what you're doing, you can play fast. I'm just trying to do that, just show the coaches that they can depend on me."
Underwood knows that he has to do more than catch the occasional deep pass in order to prove he's dependable. The coaching staff studies each practice tape very closely, looking for players who can execute their assignments play after play. It obviously hasn't hurt Underwood that he has made several eye-catching plays, but he doesn't plan on limiting his resume to that one line.
"I wouldn't say it's just that," said Underwood. "Everybody knows that the more you can do in this league, the better. So whether it's on offense, special teams, taking the top off, under routes, whatever it may be, I'm willing to do it. It's all about doing your job and getting better to get a spot on the 53-man roster."