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Kenyatta enjoys sounds of silence from his critics

Today there are questions about the direction of Kenyatta Walker's career. And, for the first time in a long while, that is a positive sign.

Potential has returned to the equation. Promise has room in the debate. He has not become a star, but he is no longer steering toward disaster.

Consider this a start. It's 26 games and 15 months late, but it's a start.

On Sunday against the Panthers, Walker made you a believer in second chances. He was solid most of the game and outstanding the rest of it.

Today there is hope for the direction of Kenyatta Walker's career. And, had you been paying attention, you know it was a difficult route to find.

Here was a 300-pound man who was fading from view. He was not performing to his capabilities and, worse yet, not listening to the advice of elders.

His most notable feat as a rookie last season was antagonizing a majority of his linemates. Before the end of his second training camp, Walker had a new coach nipping at his heels as well.

Once he had been given the script to his own legacy. Millions of dollars and a job for life on the left side of the Bucs' offensive line. In less than a year, Walker had used up his quota of good will.

Today there is reason to believe in Kenyatta Walker's career. And before you scoff, try to remember what brought him here in the first place.

Walker was a prodigy at the University of Florida. An underclassman who never met a defensive lineman he could not stop.

It had been 10 years since the Bucs picked an offensive lineman in the first round, but they were so sure of Walker they gave up a second-round pick to guarantee they were in position to grab him.

Walker seemed to think this made him invincible. It has taken a long time to realize it only made him more visible.

If you were to pick one thing that might keep the Bucs out of the Super Bowl, the offensive line would be the easy choice. And if you are wondering about the face of this line, look no further than Walker.

He is the player who could not hack it on the left side and was moved to the right. He is the player who was bounced out of the starting lineup in the season opener by a journeyman who had barely unpacked his bags.

He has the $8-million contract, he committed the most glaring penalties and he complained the loudest about supposed injustices.

"I'm used to being in newspapers for being the worst offensive lineman in the NFL," Walker said. "You get tired of hearing it, but it's motivation."

Today there is evidence that Walker has finally caught on. If you doubt this, ask Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers.

Peppers has been all that Walker has not. A high draft pick this year who immediately lived up to expectations. An impact player in a league of parity.

Yet it was Walker who won Sunday's battle. He kept Peppers away from quarterback Brad Johnson and, a good bit of the time, without help from others.

This does not mean Walker is on his way to becoming Anthony Munoz. At this point, he is not even on his way to becoming Paul Gruber.

What it indicates, however, is Walker has some fight in him. He weathered the indignity of a season opener in street clothes, and he has learned to ignore the look of doubts in the locker room.

He is just as strong as he was a year ago and his feet move with the same speed. The difference is Walker has acknowledged a need for help.

He still is cocky. He still is sensitive to criticism. But he appears to have seen the upside in following the direction of offensive line coach Bill Muir and heeding the counsel of veteran tackle Lomas Brown.

"The great thing he is accomplishing right now is he has an open mind," Gruden said. "He realizes there is no ceiling in terms of his goals. He's letting Bill Muir into his world."

Today there is more cheer in Kenyatta Walker's world. You see this as he stands next to his locker and shouts obscenities your way.

He is being playful, but there is a touch of resentment in his tone. Minutes after finishing off Peppers, after playing the best game of his pro career, Walker is in the mood to sound off.

"I'm becoming a man. You know I'm just 23. People forget that," Walker said. "That's all this is. It's me growing up.

"You know you can only get hit in the head so many times before you finally say (to heck with) it and go out and play."

There still is room to grow. Walker still is reluctant to point out his own mistakes. But some of the brashness has been stripped away.

The player who once claimed to be "stabbed in the back" by the coaching staff now says the opening day benching was a step forward.

"Looking back, it was a real good thing," Walker said. "It seems a long time ago, standing on the sideline in my clothes, not knowing how this season was going to go. The biggest thing is it happened, and I grew from it.

"I understand now that people are going to see me go through good times and bad times. My (life) is in the public. Everybody knows what Kenyatta Walker is doing and I had to learn to accept that. I'm growing up."

Today, finally, is a good day to be Kenyatta Walker.