TAMPA — Aqib Talib planted his back foot and broke on the football, exploding through a tangle of arms to swat the pass away before it reached the empty palms of Vincent Jackson.
It was a demonstration of timing and talent during Saturday's training camp practice from what has been, at times, one of the NFL's best cornerbacks.
On plays such as that, it is easy to understand why the Bucs believe the reward is worth the tremendous risk, why a few mea culpas make them forget about a possible relapse.
"I feel like the last two incidents were just kind of what my name was. Then again, that's my fault," Talib, 26, said. "I kind of made my name what it is."
Talib has learned over the past few months that discipline is the key to everything in life — not just football.
On June 18, one week before he was scheduled to go on trial, the Dallas County State Attorney's Office dismissed charges against him of felony assault with a deadly weapon.
Through his lawyers, Talib, who faced 20 years in prison, always maintained his innocence.
"When the case was dismissed, I called to say simply, 'Hey, now this situation is behind you,' " said former Bucs star linebacker Derrick Brooks, who has become Talib's mentor.
"There wasn't a congratulations or anything like that. It was, 'Now this chapter is closed. Let's keep writing the book. Let's move forward. One less distraction. Make people believe this is who you are and you're not just putting on an act. Make people believe this is who I am today and this is who I'm going to be as a man moving forward.' "
For the first time since his first training camp in 2008, Talib entered without a pending trial or visit to the office of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
The charges in Texas hung over him last season. He was arrested for punching a St. Petersburg cab driver in 2009, which led to a suspension for the first game of 2010.
Prior to that, his violent outbursts had been limited to scraps with teammates. There also were the verbal blasts at referees.
Brooks as well as Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber and coach Greg Schiano say since February, Talib has made a determined effort to change his life. He remained in Tampa during the offseason rather than return to his home in Dallas. He was a fixture at One Buc Place. He spent most of his time working out or taking care of his two children.
"You just sleep better, eat better, wake up with nothing to think about but football," Talib said. "Feed the kids some cereal or something and you're back to thinking football. You don't have to worry about calling your lawyer or your lawyer calling you or texting you. Clear mind, that's always the best way to go."
Schiano is very aware of Talib's off-the-field history but has kept his promise to give every player he inherited a clean slate.
"I've hesitated to get into what's happened before we arrived," Schiano said. "People say, 'Oh, that's great.' But that's how he's going to be the great player he's capable of being is just work, work, work; keep preparing, preparing, preparing. He's got gifts. When those gifts meet his preparation, he can be special."
Barber, who is making the transition to safety but played opposite Talib for four seasons at right cornerback, said he is encouraged by what he has seen off the field.
"He's committed to changing that perception about himself," Barber said. "I admire that because he's dealt with a lot in his five years with us. Those can't be issues with him anymore. We've got to talk about how good of a football player he is and let all that other stuff die away because he's incredibly talented, and his talent should speak for itself."
Talib says Schiano's taskmaster approach is more what he is accustomed to.
"What I wasn't used to is the looseness with (ex-coach Raheem Morris)," he said. "This is right back to what I'm used to."
The 20th overall pick out of Kansas in 2008, Talib can become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. The potential of a big payday might be motivation enough to stay on the right path.
However, he also has a lot of people in his corner.
"I told him, 'Be that person and those things will carry onto the field,' " Brooks said. " 'Believe it or not, do what you're doing off the field, and when you get on the field, those things will carry over on the field. You'll make plays you probably shouldn't have made. The team will win games that has nothing to do with X's and O's, but it has something to do with character.' "
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected] and can be heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620.