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August 3, 2011Curtis Underwood Jr. was finishing up a recruiting trip to North Alabama when he received the phone call he was expecting last spring.
NC State coach Tom O'Brien called Underwood to ask him to return to the Wolfpack, which didn't surprise him too much. Underwood's friends on the team gave him advanced warning that sophomore running back Mustafa Greene injured his foot, and might miss some games for the 2011 season.
Underwood had left the Wolfpack following the 2010 season after it became clear he wasn't likely going to be in the top two spots on the depth chart. The 5-foot-11, 220-pounder alternated between third and fourth string last year, rushing for 62 yards on 15 carries, plus a 12-yard touchdown reception. He appeared in four games at running back, and played extensively on special teams.
With the expected healthy return of Greene and junior James Washington, playing time would be up in the air for the fifth-year senior, but Greene's injury changed the backfield dynamics.
"The opportunity presented itself with Mustafa going down," Underwood said. "I was fixing to transfer out and got the phone call from Coach O'Brien. I didn't have to think twice about it because I knew where I wanted to be. When I heard his voice, my heart dropped because I had been waiting for it.
"I was looking at University of Buffalo, Norfolk State, North Alabama, and maybe Slippery Rock or something. I think everything has worked out for the best."
Underwood just has to finish an internship to complete his degree in parks, recreation and tourism at NC State.
"I'll be just doing an internship during the fall, so it's just going to be football and my internship," Underwood said. "It's going to be football 24/7 because my internship won't be until later this fall and we practice in the mornings. I'll be watching extra film and do whatever I need to make myself better."
Underwood has rushed for 262 yards on 66 carries and a touchdown, plus caught six passes for 48 yards and a score during his 30-game Wolfpack career. O'Brien alluded during ACC Football Kickoff that there was one aspect of Underwood's game that has been holding him back at NC State.
"The challenge every day is to hold on to the football," Underwood said. "[New NC State running backs] Coach [Everette] Sands has been doing a great job of not letting me slip up. Every now and then I'll have the ball come out, and Coach Sands will be running down the field and yelling, 'Tuck the ball away.' It's the little things, and the little things make the difference."
Sands had just four fumbles during his entire career at The Citadel. Underwood will have to prove in practice that he won't turn the ball over in order to get trusted in games.
"I was a practice fumbler, but that is now behind me," Underwood said. "After a while, it was [psychological]. When what you do isn't working, you see what happens, you fall all the way to the fourth back."
Underwood was expected to be the starter last year. He had redshirted during the 2009 season and was named the scout team offensive player of the year. Everything was geared toward having a strong last two years. The scenario has been altered a bit this season, but if he gets off to a strong start against Liberty in the season opener Sept. 3 at Carter-Finley Stadium, he can create his own happy ending.
"It was really humbling and I got a little upset, but I did it to myself," said Underwood about having Greene and Dean Haynes beating him out last year. "I wanted to come back because I had something to prove. I wanted this opportunity again.
"I know if protect the football, make my reads and protect on [blitzes], and if I do that, I'll get on the field."
Sands has also been challenging Underwood to be a leader. He really wasn't sure how he'd be received when he came back to the fold, and expected some awkward situations after missing spring practice, particularly with the other backs.
"In the beginning, it was a little bit different," Underwood said. "I just felt like I was away from everybody and everything, and I was coming back. I figured guys would be distant at first, but they embraced me right away. There was hugs and stuff like that.
"I was worried. I knew it would make the other backs work harder. James was really receptive to me, and that was the most shocking thing."
The Lackawanna, N.Y., native has experienced the highs and lows of college athletics the last four years. He hopes his dedication pays off with a productive senior year.
"This is the last chance and it is all or nothing," Underwood said. "I'm all in and have all my cards on the table. I'm ready to go. God willing, if I can stay healthy, I'll have a great shot."