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BEFORE THE season, Thomas Davis's Georgia teammates quietly negotiated a deal with him: The 6'1", 220-pound junior safety is not allowed to unleash his trademark rib-crunching hits in practice. "It's a matter of survival," says senior wide receiver Fred Gibson. "That boy will run a hole right through you."
LSU--not exactly high on any Dawg's best-friend list--found that out the hard way last Saturday. Led by the pile-driving Davis, the Georgia defense ran the Tigers into the Sanford Stadium turf in a 45--16 win that exacted revenge for last season's two demoralizing losses to LSU. The game was much like the 2003 regular-season matchup between the two teams, which LSU won 17-10, except that this time the defensive tyrants were cloaked in red rather than purple and gold: The Bulldogs had five sacks and forced three fumbles. "They came out fast and furious," said Tigers coach Nick Saban. "I thought we were ready to play, and the outcome was a real curveball."
Certainly this Georgia team is far different from the one that scrambled helplessly around Tiger Stadium a year ago--and in many ways from the one that scored 33 points, total, against South Carolina and Marshall in September. Quarterback David Greene, who had two of the worst performances of his career against the Tigers in 2003 (one of them in the SEC title game), threw for TDs on five of his 10 completions. His linemen, who gave up an SEC-high 47 sacks last season, allowed just one while ushering freshman backs Danny Ware and Thomas Brown to a combined 190 yards on the ground.
Meanwhile, to say that the defense hasn't changed much since last year, when the Bulldogs were fourth in the nation in yards allowed, is high praise. While carrying the offense through sporadic naps, the Dawgs' D has shown a big-play ability that can galvanize Greene's unit. Near the end of the first quarter against LSU, Davis plowed into Tigers tailback Justin Vincent, popping the ball free. Sophomore defensive end Quentin Moses scooped it up, and on the next possession Greene hit Gibson for a two-yard touchdown to put Georgia up 17--0. On the following series Davis wrapped up fullback Jacob Hester, and the ball squirted into the hands of linebacker Odell Thurman. Five plays later Greene connected with Reggie Brown on a 29-yard scoring strike, pushing the lead to 24. Game over.
Even amid a constellation of defensive stars that includes Thurman and All-America end David Pollack, Davis stands out. That's ironic given the obscurity in which he spent his high school years. Turns out even when you're good enough to play running back, quarterback, defensive end, defensive back and wide receiver, if you do it at Randolph-Clay High in Shellman, Ga. (pop. 1,100), few hear about it. Only Grambling, Savannah State and Georgia offered Davis scholarships. But Bulldogs defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder needed only to see Davis outmuscle and outrun his teammates at a basketball practice (he also played forward for Randolph-Clay) to be convinced that he was Georgia material. "There was no braggadocio in him," says VanGorder, who was named the top assistant coach in the nation last year. "But he could get from A to B as quick as I've seen."
Once Davis was on campus, coaches found him to be a ferocious and technically sound tackler--traits Davis attributes to his penchant for "running over opponents instead of around them" in his tailback days at Randolph-Clay. Early on, Georgia tried to mold the brawny speedster into a linebacker, but in 2003 he was moved to safety in part to capitalize on his quickness in coverage and on blitzes. He finished the season with a team-high 130 tackles, earning the Iron Man Award as the player who "strains his potential in every endeavor." Now, "every time I have a big hit," says Davis, "I think about what those other big teams are missing out on."
VanGorder has persuaded coach Mark Richt to allow the Dawgs to practice in full pads and at full speed at least once a week. With a bye before the LSU game, Georgia had three days of such drills. "If VanGorder had his way, we'd go live every day," says Thurman. "Especially leading up to a dogfight like LSU."
After Davis had concluded his hit parade on Saturday (his eight tackles tied Thurman for the team lead) and morphed into his quiet off-field self, he exchanged knowing grins with VanGorder. "Man, that felt good," the junior said.
"It feels good for all of us," said his coach.