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Oct. 26, 2012
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – Everybody has their place in North Carolina State’s passing game.
And for Bryan Underwood, that place this season has been in the end zone.
The third-year sophomore has caught a touchdown pass in all seven of State’s games, helping the Wolfpack to a 5-2 start (2-1 in the ACC’s Atlantic Division). He has eight TDs altogether and is the only receiver in the country to score in each of his team’s games.
“I don’t look at it as a surprise,” Underwood said. “It’s just being in the right place at the right time. I don’t really set my mind on ‘I want to score every game this season.’
“I just want to make sure the team is winning, whether I catch two balls for 10 yards or three balls for 150 yards. It doesn’t matter to me. At the end of the day, scoring a touchdown or not, I want to make sure I’m doing my job on the field.”
Underwood has accomplished the feat on a total of just 22 receptions, so he’s scoring on 36 percent of his catches. They have come on a mixture of deep routes (46, 44 and 68 yards), intermediate ones (20 and 22 yards) and plays in the red zone (5, 4 and 2 yards).
NC State quarterback Mike Glennon spreads the ball around. He has thrown to 14 different receivers this season, seven of whom have 10 or more catches. But of Glennon’s 14 TD passes, eight have gone to Underwood.
“Mike throws to everybody,” said State head coach Tom O’Brien. “If there is a favorite guy, it's probably Quintin Payton for him because he's the leading receiver (29 catches). But whenever it seems that we need a big play, Bryan has been there to make it.”
None was bigger, or brought more attention, than the 2-yarder against Florida State. It came with 16 seconds remaining and propelled the Pack to a 17-16 win over a Seminoles team ranked third in the nation. On fourth down, Underwood found an opening across the goal line, caught the pass and survived a big hit.
“It was a shallow crossing route, going to the middle underneath the linebackers,” Underwood said. “The man that was covering me backed away and didn’t follow me in the middle, so Mike threw the ball and I caught it.
“I’ve always dreamed about catching a game-winning touchdown in any game – high school, middle school, college or whatever. I was at a loss for words. We were glad to do it in front of our crowd because they deserved to see that win.”
Underwood said he was concentrating so hard on the ball that he never saw the hit coming.
“It’s kind of funny because after the game people were asking me more about that hit than they were about the touchdown,” he said. “I was zoned in on that ball and I knew for a fact that I was not going to drop that ball. I just got up and celebrated with my teammates and the crowd.”
Underwood grew up in University Heights, Ohio, outside of Cleveland. He attracted some recruiting attention from Big Ten schools but more from ones in the Big East and ACC areas. He did some research on NC State and found out it has a history of excellent receivers – Torry Holt, Koren Robinson, Jerricho Cotchery, Haywood Jeffires and Mike Quick, to name a few.
But he wasn’t destined to step into their company right away. He took a redshirt season as a freshman and was glad to do it.
“I knew for a fact that I wasn’t going to come in ready to play,” Underwood said. “It was a year for me to slow everything down, get used to the college speed. It really did do me good because I thought it was going to be a slower pace than it really was.”
As a redshirt freshman Underwood played in all 13 games but made a modest contribution with 16 catches. He drew one start, against Virginia when two other receivers were injured. He responded with three catches for 125 yards and touchdowns of 79 (longest ever by a State freshman) and 33 yards.
“I remember getting my first career touchdown was just amazing, it was overwhelming,” he said. “It was a big game for me and I used that momentum coming into this year. I used it for positive motivation.”
There was a big turnover in the Pack’s receiving corps after 2011, with Payton the most experienced. Underwood said the receivers got together with Glennon over the summer and practiced timing and route-running.
Something else that helped was State hiring Troy Walters as receivers coach. A standout in college at Stanford, Walters won the Biletnikoff Trophy as the nation’s top receiver in 1999. He played eight seasons in the NFL.
“I think (Underwood) kind of identifies with Troy a little bit,” O’Brien said. “Troy had a tremendous work ethic as a player himself. I think he's helped (all) our wideouts, and specifically Bryan to help make him a better football player.”
At 5-11, 175, Underwood isn’t the most physical receiver around. But O’Brien said he has good hands and is committed to getting better.
Then there’s his speed. O’Brien calls is “excellent” but Underwood is a bit cagey about how fast he is.
“My speed speaks for itself down there,” he said. “I can’t label it as anything – it’s fast, that’s all I can really tell you. I’ll say if you’re not watching me and you’re peeking at the quarterback you might want to start backpedaling a little bit faster.”
Underwood had not caught more than three passes in a game until last week, when he hauled in six for 134 yards against Maryland. Both were career highs.
“I think as the season has progressed here, his role has been expanded a little bit more,” O’Brien said. “He's gained confidence each and every week. More importantly, I think Michael Glennon has a lot of confidence in him.”
This week, North Carolina will see if it can do what no team has done so far – keep Underwood out of the end zone.
“First of all, he's a good player and he understands how to get open,” said Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora. “I think Glennon finds him. He's a guy that a lot of times … a quarterback gets into a comfort zone with the receiver, and if things break down or if things are tight and not sure, that's the guy he goes to. I think Underwood has developed that confidence level with Glennon based on that alone.”
Underwood is two games short of tying the ACC record for consecutive games with a TD reception (9), set in 1990 by Virginia’s Herman Moore. If his streak is snapped before that, he said it won’t matter as long as NC State wins.
“I never sat down and said ‘there’s a record I want to get,’” he said. “I just focus on the next game and just do my part. It’s not going to just be me – everybody has their own place and we want to feed off each other and just work as a whole and learn and not do our own thing.”
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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