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Redshirt senior Curtis Underwood, Jr. spent this past spring preparing for the 2011 football season by training on his own. He saw as much of the NC State football team in the spring as fans did - he watched the annual Kay Yow Spring Football Game from the stands but not participate with the team because he figured he would close out his college career at North Alabama.
"I watched the spring game because, obviously, these guys are my family," he said. "I didn't watch any practices or anything, I was just focusing on my training and getting right for the next season, [regardless of] whoever I played for."
However, when sophomore Mustafa Greene went down with an injury, Underwood received a call from head coach Tom O'Brien. It didn't take long for the native of Lackawanna, N.Y. to change his plans for the fall and finish his career where it started - in Raleigh.
"I was real close [to leaving], I was about to commit to another school, North Alabama," he remembered. "I got a phone call after I came back from my visit and Coach O'Brien asked me if I wanted to come back. He didn't rush me and pressure me into a decision, but before he could finish, I told him, 'yeah, I'll come back.'"
It might not have started off like the storybook ending that Underwood envisioned when he enrolled at NC State in 2007, but the way his 2011 season has kicked off is seemingly straight out of a Hollywood script.
The 5-foot-11, 220-pounder, who rushed for 262 yards and a touchdown during his first four years on campus, won the second-team tailback job out of summer camp and erupted for 114 yards and his third collegiate touchdown in the season-opening victory over Liberty.
He entered the season with a career-long run of 15 yards, but gashed the Flames for a 33-yard gain in the third quarter and rattled off a 35-yard touchdown run in the final frame that gave the Pack a 30-15 lead. Underwood became the Pack's first 100-yard rusher since 2009 in the process.
"It was good to have that sort of game, but it's behind me now," he said. "How the line blocked was excellent, phenomenal, and the play calling was right on so I just give praise to my line. I was just happy to get the ball at all because I went from not playing to finally playing. Each time I touched the ball, I just wanted to try to put it in the end zone.
"To me, I'm hard on myself, so I just feel like to come back this week and do it again would be great. I feel like I just did OK."
Underwood served as a reserve tailback during his first two seasons on campus before redshirting in 2009. He was named the Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year and said that experience was a helpful one that gave him a game-like feel everyday in practice while he faced the first-team defense.
"Basically, I was just going against the defense, I wasn't really with the offense so I didn't really learn the offense that much," he recalled. "Being with the [scout team], I treated every practice like a game and just going against the best every day made me better."
He has maintained that mantra to this day and hopes it will help the Pack break their streak of four straight losses to Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C.
"This is it, all the cards are on the table," he said of this being his last year. "I just come out here everyday like it's my last; this will be the last Sept. 6 that I will every play. That's how I look at it."
Underwood, who alternated as the third or fourth running back in 2010, has also been helped by the presence of new running backs coach Everette Sands, who stresses taking care of the little things on the field. Underwood admitted he is hard on himself, but also said he appreciates how his new coach, who was a four-time All-Southern Conference selection at the Citadel, stays on top of him, as well.
"Coach Sands has had a lot of impact," he said. "He emphasizes the little things and he's just hard on me about the little things. At first, I was like, 'why is this guy always screaming at me in my face?' But I took a step back and realized that it's for the better and each thing he has me do are things we actually do on the field. I use the things that we do and that he works on with us."