Davis quiet -- until he gets on the field
By his own admission, Thomas Davis is a plain and simple guy.
He grew up in tiny Shellman, Ga., in the southwest corner of the state, still uses such obsolete phrases in today's world as "yes, sir" and "thank you" and would just as soon have a ham sandwich as he would filet mignon.
His brand of football is also refreshingly simple: Seek and destroy.
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And with all due respect to defensive end David Pollack, Brown may also be the most irreplaceable component in a Georgia defense that's quickly becoming the benchmark this season in the SEC.
"He just has such a great combination of size, speed and explosion that most athletes don't have," Georgia defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said. "You're talking about a guy who's carrying close to 235 pounds.
"The other thing is that he brings a certain lift to our defense, a certain identity that the other players start relating to. We're big on showing our defense particular plays of guys that represent what we like. I can promise you we've had a lot of clips of him."
The third-ranked Bulldogs could take a big step toward their third straight appearance in the SEC championship game this Saturday at Sanford Stadium by disposing of Eastern Division rival Tennessee for the fifth year in a row.
After a shaky start against Georgia Southern's unorthodox option attack, Georgia's defense has been nothing short of sensational in the last three games.
The Bulldogs allowed 294 rushing yards in that first game against Georgia Southern. In the three games since, they've allowed a total of 177 rushing yards.
"We haven't even come close to scratching the surface of how good we can be on defense," Davis said. "That's the thing that's so scary."
Like a great white shark, Davis is always lurking. He forced two fumbles last week that led to 14 points in the 45-16 pummeling of LSU. He and rover Greg Blue are the top two tacklers on the team.
VanGorder loves to use his nickel package, which allows him to move Davis even closer to the line of scrimmage in more of a linebacker's role.
The Bulldogs are also back to full strength with middle linebacker Odell Thurman, who returned for the LSU game after serving a three-game suspension.
It all adds up to one of the best defenses Tennessee offensive coordinator Randy Sanders can remember facing. He said the Miami defenses each of the last two years would be comparable, but that Davis and Blue were off the charts when it comes to making game-turning plays.
"A lot of times, you look at teams' safeties and say, 'Can your running backs make them miss, or are the safeties going to tackle them?' " Sanders said. "What you see from their safeties is not only are they tackling them, but they're hitting them so hard that they're knocking the ball loose."
Some of Davis' hits have reached legendary status.
It's still a wonder how Clemson quarterback Charlie Whitehurst peeled himself back up off the ground (albeit slowly) after being piled-drived into the turf last season by Davis.
It's the kind of blow reserved for the Bulldogs' "lip jar." The premise is pretty simple. Any time a Georgia defender really tattoos somebody, VanGorder drops a paper cutout of lips into the jar.
Nobody's revealing the official count, but Davis has stockpiled more than a few of his kissers in the jar.
"He changes the way you think," said Tennessee linebacker Kevin Burnett, who was a safety coming out of high school. "You're like, 'If I tiptoe across the middle, I might not play any more the rest of the day.' That's just the fact of the matter."
Georgia fans might want to enjoy Davis for the rest of this season. A fourth-year junior, he said he will look seriously at entering the NFL draft at the end of the year. And why not? He would almost certainly be scooped up in the top half of the first round.
Having run a 4.4 40-yard dash, Davis can bench-press close to 400 pounds and has a vertical leap of better than 40 inches.
"Thomas is a freak," Pollack marveled. "His burst is disgusting. I would trade with him in a heartbeat. I've never seen a kid with as much athletic ability."
The ironic thing is that Davis almost never got a chance to play major college football. He was hidden away at rural Randolph-Clay High School, which had about 750 students sixth through 12th grade.
At some point during his senior season, he played quarterback, running back, receiver and tight end on offense. On defense, he played some as a stand-up defensive end and shifted around to cornerback and safety depending on the situation.
Oh yeah, he also punted, kicked off and returned kicks.
"We were just so small, and I got overlooked," said Davis, whose only real scholarship offer was from Grambling until Georgia entered the picture at the last minute.
The Bulldogs were aware of Davis, but his recruiting tape was sort of lost in the shuffle during the transition from Jim Donnan to Mark Richt. The one holdover from Donnan's staff was defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Rodney Garner, who quickly informed VanGorder that Davis was worth going to see in person.
The only problem was that it was already January, and high school football season was over.
"After reviewing the film on him, we thought he was a prospect," VanGorder said. "But we couldn't offer him based on what we saw on film. He played all over, most of the time at safety, but you just didn't see him in the picture a whole lot.
"High school film can sometimes be difficult to evaluate, and I'm glad I went to see him."
Davis was practicing basketball the day VanGorder came to see him and was unaware that a Georgia coach would be there watching.
It took VanGorder all of about 15 minutes to offer Davis a scholarship.
"You could tell immediately that he was a superb athlete," VanGorder said. "The thing we didn't know about him were the intangibles. He was a very humble kid and kind of on the quiet side. I'd say it turned out pretty well for us."
The Bulldogs recruited Davis as an outside linebacker, and he spent his redshirt season there in 2001. But he moved to safety in 2002 for depth reasons, and the rest -- as they say -- is history.
"I still think about where I would be had I been dogging it and not giving it my all that day coach VanGorder came to see me," Davis said. "I don't even know if I would be playing college football right now.
"That's why when you're out there, you take advantage of every play, every second. You never stop competing."
Or looking for that next lights-out hit.
"I tell Thomas he better not hit me, better not even touch me (in practice)," joked Georgia receiver Fred Gibson. "That boy can hit, man.
"Thomas and I are pretty good friends, and I want it to stay that way."
Chris Low covers the SEC for The Nashville Tennessean.
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