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Friday, Nov 17, 2017
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Is Bucs' Underwood 'hair' to stay? Signs look good

TAMPA - Had he not been the victim of one of the most excruciating cuts in the history of the Super Bowl, Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver hopeful Tiquan Underwood might still be known best for his haircut. Piled high beneath Underwood's helmet is a retro 1980s hi-top fade, about 4 inches worth, that looks a lot like the 'do Will Smith had during the early episodes of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." The coif has been out of style for nearly a decade, and it was the main thing setting Underwood apart in the NFL until Patriots coach Bill Belichick cut him from New England's roster the night before last season's Super Bowl. "Yeah, that was tough," Underwood said of the release to make room for a player at another position. "But coach Belichick always makes his roster moves on Saturdays and he had to make a decision there and I was one of the latter guys on the roster. It was just business.''
Little has changed since Underwood came to the Buccaneers as a free agent last spring. The former Rutgers standout is still rocking that hi-top fade and, technically, he is still one of the last guys on the roster. He enters tonight's preseason home opener against the Titans at Raymond James Stadium as a third-team wideout, according to the depth chart, but he has looked more like a first-teamer during the preseason. Underwood has consistently been one of the more impressive pass-catchers in training camp workouts at One Buc Place, and he proved last week in Miami he can carry that level of play to the game. Targeted three times in the preseason opener at Sun Life Stadium, Underwood had a team-leading three catches for a game-high 76 yards, including a spectacular catch on what was arguably the play of the game. Running deep down the middle of the field against a double-team, Underwood leaped to wrestle a Dan Orlovsky pass away from safety Jimmy Wilson for a 44-yard reception at the Miami 3-yard line. "Our receivers coach P.J. Fleck says every ball is a great ball, so I just went up and tried to make a play,'' Underwood said. "I'm just glad I was fortunate enough to come down with the ball.'' Underwood considers himself fortunate to be with the Bucs, too. Despite his place on the depth chart, he believes he finally has a chance to earn some regular playing time. A 2009 seventh-round draft pick out of Rutgers who is reunited with first-year Bucs coach Greg Schiano, Underwood barley saw the field during his NFL stops in Jacksonville and New England. He appeared in just 19 games, including six last season, and caught 11 passes. They were not wasted years, though. Underwood learned way too much, particularly in New England, to classify them as such. "Going to New England changed my career,'' Underwood said. "I learned how to be a pro there, and how to actually work on my craft. It's hard not to when you're around guys like Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Tom Brady. "It's no secret why they're so successful. They put the work in, first and foremost, but they also believe they're going to play well and win, and you really have to have that mindset to be successful. "It took me four years to learn that, but now I've taken that and I'm trying to pass it on to rookies and the younger guys here so that they can break in and have a better career earlier than I did." Few have had a better training camp than Underwood, partly because he knows exactly what Schiano wants from his players and how to deliver it. He also knows his history with Schiano won't give him a leg up on a roster spot. "At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if you used to play for a coach in college or not," Underwood said. "It's about doing your job and making plays. You get judged by what you do on the field." Schiano has been a harsh judge. He knows he's got a Buccaneer Man in Underwood because Underwood has the core values he's looking for, but Schiano made it clear Underwood has to be special on the field, too. "Will he make the team? I don't know,'' Schiano said. "That's really going to be up to him. He did have a good game the other night, but I think consistency is going to be the key for him. "Can he consistently perform? I know he works hard and he understands what we want in this program, and that's a good thing. But can he be consistent? If he can, he's got a good chance here."

rcummings@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7979 Twitter: RCummingsTrib

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