David Underwood has learned a lot about himself in his first two years as a Michigan running back.

The junior, highly recruited out of Madisonville, Texas, has had to watch B.J. Askew and Chris Perry do the job he expected to do when he arrived in the fall of 2001.

After being thrown into the fire as a true freshman and rushing for 111 yards and one touchdown in five games, Underwood expected his sophomore campaign to be his coming out party.

In the early part of the season, the coaches gave him his chance to earn significant carries in the backup role behind Perry, but they felt that Underwood didn’t take advantage, and Michigan coach Lloyd Carr decided that fullback B.J. Askew would work at tailback to relieve Perry. Underwood finished a disappointing season with similar numbers to his freshman year: 111 yards and one touchdown in five games.

“What he went through a year ago was tough on him,” Carr said. “He fully expected to play more, but he hung in there. I’m very pleased with where he is.”

“I kind of had some ups and downs this year, and I’ve grown,” Underwood said after Michigan’s 38-31 win over Florida in the Outback Bowl. “I’ve matured more as a man.

“I’m still happy here. It comes a time in life when you come to a road block, and you have to make a decision. You can’t run from your problems.”

Underwood is doing everything he can to make sure he’ll be running away from opposing defenders next fall. Carr has opened up the competition for the No. 2 spot in spring practice, and the role is Underwood’s for the taking.

After the Outback Bowl, Underwood pointed to spring drills as the time where he could make his move, saying he would be “playing no games.” He has worked to improve his pass blocking ability, as well as his speed and strength. His efforts have paid off, as Carr is noticeably excited about Underwood’s emergence in spring practice.

“David has really taken a step,” Carr said. “He’s made some great runs out there, knows where the holes are, knows the protections better and he’s catching the ball better.”

With fellow junior Tim Bracken still plagued by injuries and redshirt freshman Pierre Rembert still learning the ropes, the spare carries that went to Askew last season could easily fall into Underwood’s hands.

“Hopefully, next year I can get in and show the world what I’m made of,” Underwood said.

No matter what happens on the football field, Underwood has gotten a strong taste of what it takes to succeed.

“(The disappointment) makes some people grow up, and it makes some people fold,” Underwood said. “I want to learn from what happened to me this year and turn it into positive energy next year.”

Surprise, Surprise: As hard as it must have been for Carr to give in to his traditional instincts and give John Navarre the nod at starting quarterback heading into spring practice, Carr still has his coveted quarterback competition.

Senior Spencer Brinton, who played the backup role last season, is battling it out with redshirt freshman Matt Gutierrez, the blue-chip recruit out of Concord, Calif. who has Michigan fans salivating.

While Brinton has more experience, Gutierrez is the probable successor to Navarre, and if Michigan follows past precedent, Gutierrez will get some serious snaps this season to get ready for the starting role in 2004.

Spencer has been slowed some with shoulder problems, so he has missed some practice,” Carr said. “Matt Gutierrez has a good grasp at his age for what we’re doing, and he continues to improve. He’s got a lot to learn like any freshman. But he’s really smart.”

Game Still On?: It’s too bad that the Michigan Athletic Department won’t be able to get its new FieldTurf in the Big House before the annual spring scrimmage, because Carr expressed obvious frustration with the status of the natural grass surface that still remains at Michigan Stadium.

“I was just at the stadium (Wednesday), because a week ago, that field was nothing but mud,” Carr said. “It’s a little bit better (Wednesday). Hopefully, we won’t get enough rain that will make it impossible to play there. It’s a day-to-day thing.”

What will Carr do if the field is still in shambles closer to game time?

“We’ll get (Detroit Lions’ home) Ford Field and open it up,” Carr joked. “I’ll call (Lions’ coach Steve) Mariucci.

“If it gets bad, we just have to wait and see.”

Michigan Associate Athletic Director Mike Stevenson, who headed the search for a new artificial surface, is expecting the game to be played at its scheduled time – Saturday, April 12 at 11:30 a.m. – at the Big House.

“I’m optimistic that, unless we get some unusually cold, wet weather between now and a few weeks, we’ll have it,” Stevenson said.

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