TAMPA, Fla. — One part of the unassuming Rutgers pair entered a large room with attention focused on him alone.
Spotlight moments like what was seen Monday afternoon at One Buc Place are usually reserved for coach Greg Schiano and quarterback Mike Glennon, these give-and-takes behind a podium part of the weekly ritual here. But wide receiver Tiquan Underwood was given the stage to revisit his Sunday showcase, an afternoon when he and tight end Tim Wright did their alma mater proud.
Underwood, a fifth-year veteran, and Wright, a rookie, played surprise starring roles in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 24-21 upset victory over the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Underwood had 108 yards with two touchdowns on three catches, including an 85-yard score in the fourth quarter, and Wright had 75 yards on eight catches.
Underwood and Wright are Rutgers men, and that means they are Schiano men as well. With their former college coach trying to rehab his Tampa Bay career, now with three consecutive victories after a 0-8 start, Underwood and Wright are large reasons why Schiano has kept his momentum alive.
“What’s up?” Underwood said as he faced the cameras. “This is a little different.”
Like most players, Underwood usually speaks in the Bucs’ locker room in the build-up to kickoff. The scene includes a mish-mash of voices, questions and story lines, and rarely does a single personality command all the attention. Given that context, Underwood’s experience Monday was rare but fitting for how the Bucs’ Rutgers influence impacted Sunday’s result.
Detroit’s Calvin Johnson was given most of the pregame publicity as the game’s best wide receiver. But only Johnson’s 115 receiving yards topped Underwood’s output, and Wright’s catch total eclipsed Johnson’s seven.
“Right after that game, I said, ‘Man, I waited five years to have a performance like that,’ ” said Underwood, 26. “I haven’t played like that since college. For that to finally happen, it just helps your confidence.”
There’s satisfaction in Schiano’s voice when he speaks about the two players. His connection with them pre-dates his time in Tampa Bay, one that has survived the strains and growth moments each has lived to reach this point.
The Jacksonville Jaguars drafted Underwood in the seventh round in 2009, and he played for the New England Patriots in 2011 before joining the Bucs in 2012. This year, he was cut Sept. 1 before re-signing Oct. 2, and he described his time in NFL purgatory this way: “You just pray and hope that you get another opportunity in this league.”
When speaking about Underwood on Monday, Schiano had to catch himself. He started a thought that began, “Some of the stuff that has happened to this kid …”
Then he paused.
“He’s not a kid anymore,” Schiano said, after collecting himself. “I’m used to calling him a kid. I recruited him.”
Meanwhile, there’s a similar bond with Wright. The undrafted free agent was signed April 29, and the 23-year-old has grown into one of the Bucs’ largest surprises of late. The former wide receiver has developed a rapport with rookie quarterback Mike Glennon that seems to mature by the week, as evidenced by Wright’s 34 catches for 366 yards since earning his first reception in Week 3.
“Timmy Wright is quickly becoming a really tough tight end to cover in this league,” Schiano said.
Both Wright and Underwood are proof of Schiano reshaping the Bucs in his image, and the results remain under inspection. There are six former Scarlet Knights players on the current active roster: Underwood, Wright, defensive tackle Gary Gibson, linebacker Ka’Lial Glaud, running back Brian Leonard and center Jeremy Zuttah.
It’s little surprise that Schiano would surround himself with trusted faces. In recent weeks, he has mentioned the key to building a locker room that doesn’t quit on the staff is filling it with high-character people. Schiano has developed relationships with players like Wright and Underwood since they were teenagers, so he should be a quality judge of their values.
On Sunday, those fingerprints made a difference.
“Personally, to see Tim Wright make the position change and just embrace it the way he has, it has been a great sight to see,” Underwood said. “He’s playing very confident right now, very sure-handed. To be from the same school, play together at Rutgers, it’s pretty neat, man, to see guys from the same school, guys that I’ve played with — Jeremy Zuttah, Brian Leonard. We’re playing good ball right now. It means a lot.”
The NFL is a revolving door of opportunity. So much attention is given to stars like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and people like them who create legacies in one location most of their careers.
Underwood and Wright represent the flip side of that reality. They are trying to make it. They are trying to show they belong. They have a long way to go, but their dreams live for now.
Games like Sunday help their cause. At the very least, they provide a memory. At the most, they could show Schiano or someone else in the league they deserve another chance in years to come.
“I look at it as I’m a professional now, I go out there and I prepare like a professional,” Wright said Nov. 4. “If things are coming to me, I feel like it’s an opportunity, and I just try to take full advantage of it.”
Both Wright and Underwood did Sunday. Usually, the spotlight shines brighter elsewhere, toward more familiar names.
But on that important afternoon, both helped their former college coach extend the good times.