TAMPA — Gloria Milligan always seemed to know just what to say.
When her son, Bucs cornerback Myron Lewis was at his lowest — meaning inactive on game days — Milligan found the appropriate words.
"She sends me a text message every day: 'Be confident. Do your job. Believe in God. Trust yourself,' " Lewis said.
Often, he needed the pick-me-up. There was Lewis, a 2010 third-round pick, watching games from the sideline in gym shorts and a T-shirt — as opposed to locking down receivers as he regularly did at Vanderbilt.
In a league where time waits for no one, Lewis is running out of it. It matters not that his struggles are largely the result of hamstring and other assorted injuries.
That's why Lewis' performance in this training camp, by far his best showing since joining the Bucs, couldn't have come at a better time.
"I've been hurt so it's been kind of frustrating for everyone," Lewis said. "(The team) didn't know what I had (to offer) and I was just on the field sprinkled in here and there. I wasn't as productive as people expected. Just coming out here and being healthy and showing 100 percent effort, being able to put my hands on the ball, is a blessing."
Lewis has been active around the ball and showing coverage ability he has rarely displayed. At times, he has gotten the better of Pro Bowl receiver Vincent Jackson, though Jackson arguably is winning the duel.
With injuries to veteran third cornerback E.J. Biggers (broken foot) and starter Aqib Talib (hamstring), the Bucs have a sizable void to fill. Lewis, finally, has proven capable.
It hasn't been flawless. Coach Greg Schiano, a former defensive backs coach, strives for perfection from the secondary. Schiano says Lewis needs to brush up on his technique to really raise his game.
"Myron has improved every day. I do believe that," Schiano said. "He started slow, but he's better each day. Myron has a couple of little bad habits that if he can get them corrected, he can be an effective corner."
Lewis has prototypical size that gives him an edge. At 6 feet 2 and 203 pounds, he is no liability against the freakish receivers starring in the NFL these days. He's beginning to use that size more effectively, knocking down passes when in the proper position.
"The one thing you can't coach is his length," Schiano said. "He's got great length. When you do press (receivers) and when you (use) some techniques, there's a lot of plays that you miss by this much. Well, a longer guy maybe doesn't miss those plays."
Now that Lewis has made a few of those plays, he has a smile that has rarely been seen. He has a new self-assurance, too. There's a clear relationship between that and Lewis' recent surge.
"Once you make a play on the ball, that builds your confidence," he said. "I've been able to make a few plays and get back in that groove."
Lewis seemed to lose that after leaving Vanderbilt. There, he was impressive, starting 36 consecutive games and recording 10 interceptions, five sacks and earning second-team All-SEC honors as a senior.
But with Tampa Bay, he has been unable to shake injuries. He missed his rookie minicamp with an abdominal strain. And during the past two training camps, he battled injuries at a time when teammates were jockeying for spots on the depth chart.
When he did get rare opportunities, he was underwhelming. Case in point: Jordy Nelson's 40-yard touchdown catch against Lewis at Green Bay last season, with Lewis beaten soundly on a stop-and-go move.
But now, his slate is clean. More important, he's not in the training room. That — and his mother's timely advice — gives him a real chance to contribute.
"Being hurt on a consistent basis (set) me back and I was struggling," Lewis said. "It was frustrating. But I'm ready to play.."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @HolderStephen.