A few hours after fracturing his right hand in the first quarter
of last Saturday's 44-15 win at LSU, Florida middle linebacker
Andra Davis was shrugging off the broken bone like a bee sting.
"I'm not sure when it happened, and I didn't pay it much
attention," said Davis, whose only concession to the injury was a
soft cast that a team doctor applied at halftime. "I missed all
last season. As long as I've got two legs, there's no way I'm
going to miss a minute of this one."
After being sidelined when he tore the medial collateral ligament
in his left knee during the Gators' opener last year, against
Ball State, Davis is back. So, it seems, is the Florida defense.
Last season, with two freshmen manning the interior in place of
Davis, the Gators' second-leading tackler in 1999, Florida
yielded an average of 133.1 rushing yards per game. This season
the Gators (5-0, 3-0 in the SEC), who leapfrogged Miami to become
the No. 1 team in the nation after Saturday's victory, are
yielding 71.8 rushing yards and a conference-low 9.0 points.
Davis, a fifth-year senior, is second on the team with 6.7
tackles per game, but his coaches and teammates agree that his
impact can't be quantified. "Andra's being back makes all the
difference. He's unbelievably well prepared and makes sure
everyone else is, too," says defensive coordinator Jon Hoke, who
had to simplify his pressure package midway through last season
to accommodate his young linebacking corps. With Davis patrolling
the middle, the rest of the defense now feels "a new freedom" to
go for big plays, says senior defensive end Alex Brown, whose two
sacks against LSU make him the Gators' alltime leader with 28.
"Andra's always three steps ahead of the offense. He's the one
getting people where they need to be."
Last year, when watching away games from his childhood home in
Live Oak, Fla., Davis found himself shouting at the television
set. The greatest incentive for rehabilitation came the first
weekend in December, when Florida won the SEC championship the
day after his first child, daughter Alisha, was born to his
girlfriend of six years, Monique Philmore. "Having her has given
me a new reason for working hard," says Davis.
With a baby in the house, Davis resolved to attack his waistline
by forgoing junk food and alcohol; he also shed his knee brace by
the start of spring drills and lingered after summer workouts to
run extra sprints with defensive teammates Todd Johnson and
Marquand Manuel, both starters, and Cory Bailey. Entering this
year's opener, against Marshall, leaner (he'd lost 13 pounds to
get down to 241) and meaner than ever, Davis sacked Thundering
Herd quarterback Byron Leftwich so hard on the third play from
scrimmage that he knocked Leftwich's mouthguard out of his mouth.
"Dre's going crazy," says Brown. "He's the best linebacker in the
country, and if he continues playing like he's playing, people
will start realizing that."
Following the Gators' 52-0 rout of Mississippi State on Sept. 29,
Hoke made an effort to promote his star to a group of NFL general
managers who were present. "Andra's not the fastest guy on the
clock," Hoke told the visitors. "The stuff that he plays with is