Underwood gets another shot with Bucs

BY foxsports • September 21, 2012

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers line up Sunday inside Jerry Jones' billion-dollar football shrine known as Cowboys Stadium, they'll have a spiffy new look in the wide receiving corps.

For starters, the high-top fade is back in the offensive scheme — not the name of a pass route, but the distinctive, sculpted 'do of Tiquan Underwood.

An 11th-hour cut at the end of the preseason, Underwood is back with the Bucs and ready to play what could be an important supporting role with his excellent speed and good hands. What kept Underwood from making the team the first time around — in spite of leading the team with nine catches for 176 yards in exhibition game action — was his relative lack of experience as a return specialist.

Sammie Stroughter got the nod given his track record as an excellent return man, remembered for notching the first kickoff return for a touchdown in franchise history in 2009. But Stroughter injured his foot in last week's wild 41-34 loss to the New York Giants at the Meadowlands.

That set in motion a chain reaction of moves involving Tampa Bay's pass-catchers. To make room for Underwood's re-signing on Thursday, the Bucs released Preston Parker, its incumbent slot receiver and No. 1 punt returner from 2011. Parker had struggled during the preseason holding onto punts and hadn't caught a pass during the first two games of 2012, putting him on shaky ground with Schiano.

He'd already relinquished the punt-return job this season to Stroughter. But the prognosis on Stroughter's foot didn't look good early this week, with Schiano suggesting the injury could lead to a long-term absence. So on Tuesday, the team re-signed another player it had released on the eve of the regular season, former Bengals receiver and punt returner Jordan Shipley. As a rookie in 2010, the former Texas Longhorns standout caught 52 passes for 600 yards for the Bengals, then he missed most of the 2011 season with a knee injury.

Watch for Shipley to take over Stroughter's punt-return responsibilities for the Bucs this weekend and see action behind starting wide receivers Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, who is finally ready to resume a substantial role in the unit after injuring his knee in offseason workouts.

Benn, known for his combination of speed and strength, missed the season-opening win over Carolina yet looked strong as a kickoff returner last week against New York (returning one 55 yards to open the second half.) He's also likely to serve as the No. 1 slot receiver now in three-receiver formations.

"I feel great," Benn said. "I needed the Giants game to get out there and get a feel and continue to get my body back into the groove. Just getting out there and getting better every day in practice translated over to the game."

Meanwhile, Underwood could have a chance to make an immediate impact. Beyond the clutch play he displayed this summer, he's also well-schooled in the disciplined system of Greg Schiano, having played for the new Bucs head coach at Rutgers.

Last year, Underwood suffered the disappointment of being cut by New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick the night before the Super Bowl. But he was roundly praised for the classy way he handled the news, never expressing bitterness over the move.

Schiano gave Underwood a new chance this summer and he rose to the occasion, appearing to have made the roster with a strong exhibition finale, only to face disappointment once again.

At the time, Schiano called his decision to release Underwood a particularly difficult one, having recruited him to Rutgers and watched him blossom with the Scarlet Knights for four seasons. But he hinted that Underwood could be brought back, so his return this week was not surprising.

The Bucs made one more move Friday, signing speedy San Diego Chargers practice squad wideout Chris Owusu. He made a name for himself at Stanford as a prime target of quarterback Andrew Luck, the NFL's No. 1 overall draft choice by the Colts in April. And he created an additional buzz at the NFL combine by running a 4.31 in the 40-yard dash, the second fastest of all the participants.

Though Owusu wasn't drafted due to suffering three concussions in the past 13 months, he's been cleared to play and could give the Bucs an added threat as a kick returner. He excelled at that job in college, returning three kicks for touchdowns as a Stanford sophomore. In addition to his 78 kick returns overall for 2,132 yards (a 27.3-yard average), he also caught 102 passes for 1,534 yards and 10 touchdowns.

"Chris is a guy who we really liked coming out," said Schiano. "And the opportunity presented itself to get him on the 53, and we took advantage of it. He's a guy we think has some traits that can lend to our receiving corps."

Schiano acknowledged there were concerns about Owusu's concussions. He originally signed with San Francisco before winding up on the Chargers' practice squad. But despite his head injuries, the Bucs ultimately felt comfortable bringing Owusu aboard.

"Here's a guy who went through the preseason and played on special teams," Schiano said. "As an organization, you use all your resources — our doctors and our trainers made a decision to go ahead. I think he's going to be fine. If it turns out differently, you have to do whatever you have to do."

All three new receivers — Shipley, Underwood and Owusu — can burn it down the field. But, added Schiano, "I think the three guys have unique, different skill sets. Sure, there's carry-over because they play the same positions, so there will be certain skills that are similar. But they're different guys, each one, and that's by design as well, to add to the guys we already have."