Curtis Underwood almost became a poor man's version of Russell Wilson in the N.C. State football program.
But Underwood was still in Raleigh, still in school, sharing time at running back and leading the Wolfpack to a win against Liberty last week rather than playing for Terry Bowden at North Alabama to start the season.
Wilson graduated and eventually transferred to Wisconsin for this season. Underwood also seemed on his way out of the program until likely running back starter Mustafa Greene sustained a foot injury in spring practice.
"It led to a second chance I never expected," Underwood said Wednesday. "Now, I look at every day, every practice like it's my last one, my last chance. I want to do everything I can to make every play count."
A 5-foot-11, 216-pound senior from Lackawanna, N.Y., Underwood's 114 yards rushing in the 43-21 win against Liberty exceeded his totals for the 2007 season (84 yards in six games) and 2010 (62 yards in 12 games) and almost matched the 116 yards he managed in 2008.
It was that sort of modest production and limited playing time, plus a tendency to fumble, that led Underwood to begin a transfer process, with Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien's approval, for his final season.
Having decided on North Alabama, Underwood stayed away from the Wolfpack's spring drills and only attended the spring game to say good-bye to his "ex-teammates" as he put it. When Greene (597 yards rushing in 2010) went out, O'Brien asked Underwood to reconsider.
"I told him I would come back right away," Underwood said. "I wanted that chance."
Greene is out until early October, leaving Underwood, starter James Washington and freshman Anthony Creecy to fill the role early in the season.
Underwood is the first to point out that a single good game carries limited weight, but there's no question that his performance was one of the big surprises of opening week in the ACC.
"I'm just happy to get the ball at all. I went from not playing at all to finally playing," he said.
"If I can come back and do it again (at Wake Forest, 3:30 p.m. Saturday), it would be great. Right now, it's just OK."
Underwood's career has been generally disappointing for a guy who averaged almost nine yards per carry as a high school senior.
In eight games as a freshman in '07, he was impressive enough at times to raise expectations. But by 2009, he was mired in a rare mid-career redshirt season and quickly slipped down the depth chart after entering 2010 as the tentative starter.
That retreat has been a point of focus for new running backs coach Everette Sands. When Underwood rejoined the program after spring drills, Sands had little game film to review.
"To me, Curtis was an unknown because he wasn't here in the spring," Sands said.
"I sat down and talked to him and asked him, 'Hey, going into last preseason, you were the starter. Why did you lose that starting job?' It was a failure to execute on a consistent basis and protect the ball."
The lone flaw was another fumble in the Liberty game. "If you take that out, he had a great game," Sands said. "The biggest thing he's got to do is secure that ball."
Sands has been demanding, but the tactics have worked.
"He's hard on the little things," Underwood said. "When I first met him, I was like 'Why is this man always screaming and in my face?' ... Then I realized it was for the better and each thing he has me do is something we do on the field. He's had a big impact on me."
It's for certain the Wolfpack needs ground help. Underwood's 114 yards were the most for a running back in the program since 2009. In fact, a Wolfpack runner hadn't cracked the 100-yard barrier since that season.
It's still a long shot, but who knows? By season's end, Wolfpack fans might be talking about the runner who didn't get away instead of the quarterback who did.
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