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His bags for Boston College were packed. He was beaming with optimism. And out of nowhere, Curtis Underwood's recruiting coordinator called with bad news.

His flight was canceled. That's all. Click.

"I was shocked," said Underwood, then a senior at Lackawanna. "I was like, 'What the heck? What's up with that?' I thought they dropped my scholarship and weren't interested anymore."

Three days later, the reasoning scrolled across the bottom of his television. BC head coach Tom O'Brien was hired by North Carolina State. Watching from home, Underwood was struck with winning-lottery-number euphoria. He immediately called the coaches and flew down a week later. They wanted him. Underwood could exhale.

Fast-forward to today, and he's primed to receive the bulk of the carries at N.C. State.

"It's all about opportunity and whether or not you're ready to take on the challenge," Underwood said. "I feel like I'm ready to take on the challenge."

In spot duty, Underwood rushed for 200 yards his first two seasons. Seeing the talent ahead of him, he redshirted last season. Underwood decided to wait, to be patient. His time would come. These final two seasons are his payoff. His ascension began behind closed doors, on the Wolfpack's scout team.

With Underwood masquerading as the opponent's No. 1 back every week, coaches saw what everyone in Western New York already knew. Underwood is a no-apologies bruiser.

"He's a tough-nosed kid that can run between the tackles," running backs coach Jason Swepson said. "He's going to play physical."

What Underwood lacked was a college football IQ. A year on the practice field allowed him to absorb the game's nuances, the minute details that go unnoticed by the naked eye. Underwood began picking up blitzes better. He began recognizing defensive fronts better. The game, in general, slowed.

But most of all, a year on the scout team recharged Underwood's batteries. The drive that made him arguably Buffalo's best back returned.

"It rekindled the flame," Underwood said. "I was able and willing to play last year but sitting out made me more hungry and determined to play this year."

Added Swepson, "His game day was Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. If he didn't bring it on those days, he could hurt himself on the scout team."

Now, teams will be preparing for him.

In a wide-open ACC, Underwood could be a dark horse. The headlines are elsewhere. In North Carolina, NFL agents are (literally) ready to pounce on a herd of defensive pro prospects. In Virginia Tech, running back Ryan Williams is a Heisman candidate. And in Miami, "The U" has its swagger back.

N.C. State -- like Underwood in his recruiting experience -- is flying under the radar. Already with a loaded passing game to take heat off him, Underwood could sneak up on teams.

It's a role he's craving. This low-contact preseason only does so much.

"I'm waiting for coach to release the cage and let the dogs out," Underwood said. "I'm excited and antsy that the season is really here. After all that training and all that hard work, it's finally here."

He's been waiting so long for this time. Going to his second choice, Maryland, or a lower-profile program would have gotten him on the field sooner. Not here. When Underwood arrived in Raleigh, he was sent to the back of the line -- not that he wasn't warned.

Then-starter Andre Brown, now with the New York Giants, told Underwood he'd need to wait. If Underwood wasn't up for competition, this wasn't the school for him.

"So I said I was up for the challenge," Underwood said.

On a team that finished 92nd in the nation rushing last year, Underwood is expected to lead a rejuvenated multiback attack. The smaller, quicker James Washington is "sonic" and he's "boom." Combine their forces and, yes, they're "Sonic Boom." Finally, he gets his chance to even have a nickname. It's been three years since Underwood lowered the kaboom on helpless defensive backs with regularity. That's the price he paid for picking N.C. State.

Underwood knows the history of Buffalo-bred football players. It's not long. Now that he's here, he won't let this season slip away.

"I feel like I have the city on my back right now," Underwood said. "I don't want to let them down. There's a lot of talent coming out of the area. It's just about the opportunity.

"And I feel like I have an opportunity here."

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