TAMPA — Tiquan Underwood has scratched and clawed for three years, trying to achieve longevity in the NFL. But even as he continues those efforts, he does so knowing time is not on his side.
That's why Underwood — now on his third team — takes a serious tone when asked about his pursuit of a Bucs roster spot. The young receiver, 25, knows words like "potential" and "upside" barely matter in a bottom-line league where players are judged chiefly on production.
Underwood is off to a good start with his promising performance in training camp and, on Friday night, his stirring start to the preseason. Everything he has done has reflected his now-or-never approach to 2012.
"This is about to be my fourth year," said Underwood, who had a game-high 76 receiving yards on three catches in a win over the Dolphins.
"I've been through a lot as a player and as a person. I've put a lot into this. I personally feel like it's time to break through."
A 2009 seventh-round draft choice of the Jaguars, Underwood has a thin pro resume with 11 catches in three seasons. He's probably better known by casual fans for being cut by the Patriots the night before the Super Bowl and for his old-school high-top fade haircut than anything he has done on a football field.
But Bucs coach Greg Schiano, who coached Underwood at Rutgers, saw redeeming qualities and brought him aboard as a free agent in May. Schiano was clear from the outset that Underwood's fate would not be influenced by their relationship.
Underwood has seized the opportunity. In camp, he has been a nice complementary receiver with impressive speed and reliable hands. In Friday's game, Underwood reinforced his camp performances.
So, what changed? How is he the same guy who played in just six games for the Patriots last season? A thought-provoking question from offseason training mate Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals' All-Pro, jump started things.
"Confidence is big in this league, because everybody is good," Underwood said. "It's what differentiates you. (Fitzgerald) asked me, 'Are you better than (Bucs star receiver) Vincent Jackson?' "
Underwood was puzzled.
He responded, " 'Nah, man. That's a Pro Bowler.' (Fitzgerald) said, 'Man, your mind-set isn't right. You've got to think that you're the best receiver on your team. If you don't you shouldn't be playing.' I've really taken that attitude from him. I really respect Vincent and his career. But your mind-set takes you a long way in this league."
When Underwood plays, the confidence comes through. It was on display in the second quarter at Miami, when Underwood dusted former first-round pick Vontae Davis, fooling him with a step to the inside before going outside for a 23-yard catch from backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky. Moments later, Underwood blew past cornerback Sean Smith, leaped and took the ball away from safety Jimmy Wilson for a 44-yard gain.
"That's good stuff," Schiano said later. "… That was pretty impressive on the production."
On both plays, Underwood showed off his speed, his best-known attribute. But Underwood would like to think he has layers. Fighting for the football the way he did is an example.
"Each receiver is known for something," he said. "I know I'm classified as a faster guy, but if you want to stick around in this league, you have to work on your overall craft. You have to be able to run intermediate routes, crossing routes over the middle. I have to make the deep routes better and then work on the other things that I don't do well."
Underwood's sense of urgency and his newfound confidence have contributed to his performance thus far. But what does a nice showing in training camp and a big performance in a meaningless preseason game really represent?
For a guy trying for three years to make his mark, it means a lot.
"Personally, it was a big building block," Underwood said. "For me and for a team. It was our first showing before a live audience. And for me, it was a big building block because I've done it in practice, but now it has to transfer to the game. It went well as a team and as an individual. That's a hell of a day."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]