Curtis Underwood feels like he has something to prove. After rushing for 1,344 yards and 14 touchdowns as a junior at Lackawanna (NY) High, he followed that up with a fabulous senior season where he helped lead Lackawanna to a state championship.
On the year he tallied 2,114 yards and 21 touchdowns and was named the top player in western New York. At 6-foot and 215-pounds, he showcased outstanding speed and strength on the prep level.
"He broke so many records at our high school, and we've had a list of running backs come out of our high school to play well," said Lackawanna head coach Bruce Lakso. "He was on the field for everything. He returned kicks, he returned punts, he played defense, and he played offense. He made big plays throughout his high school career. He's a four-year varsity starter and he loves the weight room.
"Curtis is the most personable kid... you talk to him, and he's very polite and down-to-earth. He's just a great kid. Anything you ask him to do he will do. He just has a smile that is very contagious. I can't say enough great things about Curtis."
Despite his success on the field, Underwood flew under the recruiting radar, but the NC State coaching staff knew all about him as they pursued him while at Boston College. After a stellar senior season, teams like Pittsburgh, Penn State, and Syracuse tried to get involved, but Underwood committed to NC State following a mid-January official visit.
"Basically it was the up-north schools," said Underwood. "There was Michigan, Penn State, Syracuse, Temple... all of them and some others were contacting me.
"It is motivation for me. I know I'm better than just them that were recruiting me. Maybe it was because my name wasn't really out there. Maybe some of the other southern schools didn't think guys from up north could play ball."
"The coaching staff here was big for me," Underwood added. "When I met with coach O'Brien, I liked how he was laid-back and easy to talk to. He's a nice guy. When I was talking to coach Swepson, I could tell they were dedicated in getting this program going in the right direction. I wanted to be a part of that."
After inking with the Wolfpack in February, Underwood assumed he would be enrolling at NC State in the first summer session with all of the other incoming freshmen. However, because New York schools tend to complete the school year later than others, the NCAA Clearinghouse did not receive his documentation until it was too late for summer enrollment... despite the fact that he was fully qualified.
Instead of enrolling as early as June, Underwood wasn't able to make it down to NC State until the first of August, a day before the Wolfpack's first team practice. He missed all of the summer workouts and had to jump into the mix right away.
"Missing summer workouts was tough," said Underwood. "I thought I was ready to go, but I wasn't where they wanted me to be. I had to get in even better shape. I still came in and gave it my all and practiced hard everyday."
Luckily for Underwood and NC State, he wasn't expected to be counted on as a true freshman. NC State's deepest position was at tailback, where two-year starters Andre Brown and Toney Baker returned along with talented redshirt sophomore Jamelle Eugene. It shouldn’t be forgotten that in the season opener,
Baker, Brown and Eugene were listed as co-starters.
A redshirt certainly seemed in the cards for Underwood. He could take this season and learn the offense while continuing to develop his already chiseled frame.
"I really expected to redshirt this year," he said. "I was going to try and earn playing time, but they all had the experience on me. I was going to be a sponge in my redshirt year. I was just going to ask Toney Baker, Andre, and J.E. all the questions in the world. Just the little things, and they weren't shy to help me out. Even when I didn't ask questions they would come up and ask me what to do on a certain play. It's helped me."
Then the injury bug hit. The Wolfpack lost tight end Anthony Hill prior to the first practice with a knee injury, and then 26 snaps into his junior season Baker was done with a knee injury. The injury to Baker moved Underwood from the scout team to the third-team tailback position, and led to him burning his redshirt two games later when the Wolfpack defeated Wofford.
"It was a little surprising to get in that early," he stated. "I wasn't sure how the redshirt thing worked, but I never would have thought I'd be playing by then."
The coaching staff's thought process was you always need to have three backs ready to go, but with Eugene and Brown healthy Underwood would likely play minimal snaps the rest of the way. Then just three games later, Brown would break his foot in the second quarter against Florida State, likely ending his season.
During fall practice, Tom O'Brien openly stated that Toney Baker and Andre Brown were the two best players on his football team, and halfway through the year both were sidelined with major injuries... making Underwood even more important.
"The first thing that went through my mind when Andre got hurt was that I've got to step up," said Underwood. "I've got to play. I'm at Florida State... I made a couple of mistakes but I got through it."
Some felt the Wolfpack should move Darrell Blackman, one of the team's starting wide receivers, back to tailback, a position he played his first two seasons at NC State. However head coach Tom O'Brien insists that Underwood will be the backup to the new starter, Jamelle Eugene.
"We have two tailbacks," said O'Brien. "That's why we started playing Underwood a couple of weeks ago as the third tailback, to get him ready for this situation. If you lose another tailback then it's pretty tough to run the offense, and then maybe [moving Darrell Blackman] is a consideration, but I don't think so right now."
Underwood believes that he is ready. He is working with the second-team and preparing as if he is going to be the starter. Now he is one injury away from being the Wolfpack's starter. Who would have thought that just two months ago?
"I'm working hard and practicing like it's the last," he stated. "You never know what's going to happen. It's exciting. Not a lot of freshmen get the chance to play real early.
"I've just got to do my best. I need to keep working hard."