After 8 cuts in 5 years, Panthers receiver Tiquan Underwood fights to beat the odds

jjones@charlotteobserver.comJune 18, 2014 

— Being cut eight times by three teams can humble a man.

Having a daughter can change a man.

Panthers wide receiver Tiquan Underwood is entering his sixth year in the league with his fourth team. Before coming to Carolina, he endured cuts in Jacksonville, New England and Tampa Bay. But those preceded the birth of his daughter, Thai, with his fiancée.

“I wouldn’t say anything changes because you want to take a serious approach, but I would just say I’m more mindful of the fact that it’s not just me anymore,” Underwood said Wednesday at minicamp practice. “I have a fiancée and a daughter that also rely on what I do.”

Underwood has an opportunity in Carolina to replace Ted Ginn Jr., the speedy wide receiver who filled the No. 3 role for the team in 2013. So far this offseason he hasn’t separated himself from the middle of the receiving corps.

But Underwood knows well the battle of carving out a spot on an NFL team. Five months after the birth of his daughter, he has perhaps the best opportunity of his career.

Recently Underwood has experienced sacrifice. An avid sneaker collector, he has had to “tone it down a bit” with another mouth to feed. But the concept of sacrifice isn’t unfamiliar.

Daikiel Shorts and Kheesha Underwood-Shorts, Underwood’s uncle and aunt, took in Underwood when he was a boy.

Underwood played basketball and football and ran track as a teenager. He went to Notre Dame High, a private, Catholic school about a 75-minute drive from his uncle’s home in Clayton, N.J.

“That was the schedule and we didn’t know any better,” Daikiel Shorts said during a phone interview Tuesday night. “We wanted to put him in a situation to be successful. It was a family effort.”

At first, Underwood was hesitant to attend the school, known for his academics and sports teams. But Shorts was persistent, and both men remember the drive to orientation at Notre Dame.

“It was challenging for him,” Shorts said. “He didn’t want to go. Going down to the school I said, ‘Look, this isn’t free. I can turn around.’ I was just throwing out stuff because I knew this was the best thing for him.

“And in my mind I’m saying, ‘Please don’t tell me to turn around.’ Couldn’t have him challenging my manhood.”

Underwood attended Rutgers in his home state so his family could see him play. With Greg Schiano as his coach, Underwood caught 65 passes for 1,100 yards as a junior.

Without running back Ray Rice, Rutgers changed its offense for Underwood’s senior year. As Underwood struggled at the beginning of the season, the team focused more on receiver Kenny Britt, and Underwood finished with 40 catches for 494 yards.

The Jaguars selected Underwood during the seventh round in 2009 with just four picks remaining in the draft. There, Underwood found former N.C. State star receiver Torry Holt, who became his mentor.

“Coming into the NFL as a rookie you’re always looking for that guy you can look up to who’s a good example. For me it was Torry Holt in Jacksonville,” said Underwood, who will work at Holt’s football camp June 28 in Raleigh.

Cut twice by Jacksonville, Underwood caught on with the Patriots. New England cut him four times, and no time was more famous than Feb. 4, 2012 – the night before Super Bowl XLVI.

Underwood, who said he harbors no ill will for the cut, was found on the NFL scrap heap by Schiano, his college coach. In 2012, Schiano, a first-year coach with Tampa Bay, signed Underwood but would cut him twice.

Underwood worked back and eventually the Buccaneers re-signed him Oct. 2, 2013. He had a breakout performance against Detroit with three catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns, including the winning score in the fourth quarter.

It also was Underwood’s first 100-yard game since 2007 with Rutgers.

“He turned me from a boy into a young man,” Underwood said of Schiano. “Nothing was handed to me, but I just continued to battle and fight, and in the end it worked out for me. I was brought back both times and had the two best seasons of my NFL career and hopefully I can build on that here at Carolina.”

A free agent after 2013, Underwood signed a two-year deal worth more than $2 million with the Panthers to be their downfield threat. He has been clocked at 4.31 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

“He’s the type of guy that you don’t really know how fast he is until he’s running past you,” veteran receiver Jason Avant said. “He doesn’t look like he’s moving, but he’s covering so much ground in each stride. He’s going add a great dimension to this team.”

Underwood hasn’t flourished this week, though. Wednesday, he and quarterback Joe Webb couldn’t connected on two passes – one was short across the middle and another he couldn’t haul in downfield.

His struggles continued with Matt Blanchard, who again tried Underwood deep downfield and the ball went through his hands. Underwood eventually caught two passes near the end of practice.

“When you’re playing with new quarterbacks and receivers, we’re all feeling each other out,” said Underwood, who said he had tweaked his hamstring but should be 100 percent by training camp. “By the time training camp gets here we’re all familiar with each other. Those passes you don’t hit in (organized team activities), hopefully you’re hitting in training camp, the preseason and then the season.”

Coach Ron Rivera said Underwood has a legitimate opportunity with the Panthers as a receiver and on special teams.

Rivera likes his deep-threat abilities, and he believes Underwood has learned from each of his eight cuts.

“Everything happens for a reason, and I’m just continuing to work hard and fight,” Underwood said. “And here I am going on my sixth year in the NFL where the average is three to four years. I’ve beaten the odds by continuing to work.”

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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