New Carolina Panthers wide receiver Tiquan Underwood wants to be known as more than the guy with cool hair who was cut by New England coach Bill Belichick the night before the Super Bowl.
Joining a Panthers team that had its receiving corps gutted should give Underwood his chance.
Underwood, 27, signed a two-year, $2.1 million deal with the Panthers on March 21 after two promising seasons in Tampa Bay. His hair – a 4-inch, hi-top fade reminiscent of Will Smith’s ’do on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” – has its own Twitter account, the work of an enterprising Panthers fan based on the color scheme.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said Underwood and wideout Jerricho Cotchery, another free agent acquisition, were signed in part because of their reputations as high-character players.
Underwood earned praise for his handling of his release the night before the Patriots’ loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI. He wished the Patriots good luck on his Twitter account after learning of his release, and he was re-signed by the team a couple of days later.
He is more interested in growing his career at this point rather than his fade or good-guy reputation – although he doesn’t plan on getting rid of those, either.
“Being known for the Super Bowl and the hair, it is what it is,” Underwood said during a telephone interview last week. “But I just want to continue to keep working on my craft and getting better as a receiver.
“These last two years, to work with (Bucs receiver) Vincent Jackson, I’ve learned a lot from him, and it’s showed. Those last two years have been very confident for me and the development of my game. And I’m looking forward to doing the same in Carolina.”
The Panthers hope he can replace Ted Ginn Jr. as Cam Newton’s primary deep threat. Underwood, 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, caught 24 passes for 440 yards last season – an 18.3 yards-per-catch average that ranked fourth among NFL receivers with at least 20 receptions.
“Tiquan is a guy that can get over the top,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “He’s a strider, and once he gets going he’s gone.”
Underwood, raised by his aunt and uncle in New Jersey, started 32 games in four seasons at Rutgers. He finished with seven 100-yard receiving games, tied for second in school history.
As a junior, he and Kenny Britt became the first Big East receiving tandem to finish with 1,000 yards apiece. That Rutgers team also featured Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.
When Rice left before Underwood’s senior year, Britt became the focal point of the offense. Britt caught 87 passes and was the 30th overall pick by Tennessee in the 2009 draft.
Meanwhile, Underwood managed 40 receptions during his final year at Rutgers. He was Jacksonville’s seventh-round pick and the 253rd player taken overall in ’09 – just three spots above former South Carolina kicker Ryan Succop, the so-called “Mr. Irrelevant” as the last player drafted.
Underwood’s low draft position foreshadowed a difficult transition to the NFL. He has been cut eight times, including twice by former Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano, who was Underwood’s coach at Rutgers.
The Bucs re-signed Underwood both times after he was part of the final cuts the past two years.
“I’ve had a roller coaster ride type of journey in the NFL, filled with ups and downs. But when you get knocked down, it’s all about how you react to it,” Underwood said. “I just continued to work hard, tried to get better every year as a player.”
His ability to take a punch was never more apparent than when Belichick cut him to create a roster space for practice-squad defensive end Alex Silvestro before the Super Bowl two years ago.
Underwood played in only five games for the Patriots that season and wasn’t expected to see action against the Giants, but he had practiced all week and had his family with him in Indianapolis.
He encouraged his family to attend the game, which he watched in his hotel room.
“This Is Nothing But MOTIVATION,” Underwood tweeted. “I Been Thru A LOT...But There Are people In This World with More Serious Problems So I can’t Hang The Head.”
He later sent a good luck tweet to the Pats.
First-year Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien, the former Patriots offensive coordinator, called Underwood a class act.
“He’s awesome. He’s a great guy, team guy,” O’Brien said last week at the league meetings. “He was on and off our roster in New England that last year a few times. Every time he came in he was smart, he picked up right where he left off.
“He was filling somewhat of a backup role, and he ended up making some big catches in games for us. Tom (Brady) really respected him, and we all did. He’s a high-character guy.”
Underwood said he learned from the Super Bowl slight.
“That moment changed a lot for me,” he said. “I was a guy that was on the back half of the roster, and they felt they needed to make a roster move. I know now that I have to play better so that I’m not on the back half of the roster when those decisions are being made.”
Underwood said he’s open to returning kicks for the Panthers, who released Steve Smith and had three other receivers leave via free agency.
He hasn’t had much sleep after his fiancee gave birth to the couple’s first child – a girl named Thai – in February. He’s looking forward to getting to Charlotte this month for workouts.
While his hair – which he hasn’t cut substantially in three years – will get him recognized, he’s hoping his performance will keep him around.
“When I wake up in the morning, I just comb it a little bit and I’m out the door,” he said. “It’s not high-maintenance at all.”
Is Underwood a high-maintenance receiver?
“Not at all,” he said. “A real low-key type of guy. I do what I do. I love playing football. I love going to work.”