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 tackier 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 line-backing 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 all inside."