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Game a big hit again for Buster

Published Aug. 28, 2005

The contrasting pair of tattoos on the underside of his arms are far more than decorative body art to Florida State middle linebacker Buster Davis.

A happy-faced clown on his right with the words "Laugh Now" and a frowning clown on his left with "Cry Later" serve as a reminder to fans, and himself, of the ups and downs of his Seminole career.

"You have people who don't believe you can do things, so, laugh now, but you're going to cry later because I'm going to have the last laugh," Davis said. "And I think right now I'm having the last laugh on people who didn't think I was going to pan out at Florida State."

Davis, 20, a third-year sophomore, seemed ready to leave FSU a week into his first season, admitting he had to overcome some of his "hard-headed" tendencies. He started for the first time Saturday and immediately left an impression.

"No. 7 really hits you," FSU coach Bobby Bowden gushed as he narrated a highlight film during his weekly booster luncheon.

Through two games, Davis has 10 tackles (third on the team) and has emerged as a big reason why a young defense is allowing 254 yards a game, ninth in the nation.

Linebackers coach Kevin Steele likens the quickness, field vision and instincts of the 5-foot-11 (that's a generous listing), 248-pound Davis to another so-called undersized player he had while with the Carolina Panthers, Sam Mills.

"A lot of guys can see something and kind of live on the edge of their responsibility and take a chance and not make a play," Steele said. "Buster can do that and make a play. Sam could do that and that's what made him special. He knew the game so well and he knew his abilities. Buster can do that, too."

"Oh man. Buster Davis is a playmaker," echoed senior defensive tackle Travis Johnson. "Me and the guys have been talking about that for a year and a half. Buster needs to be on the field at all times."

But for more than a year, Davis would have taken being on the field at any time. And at first, he would have preferred being on the field for almost any other team.

A consensus Top 10 linebacker coming out of Daytona Beach Mainland in 2002, Davis struggled to connect with then linebackers coach Joe Kines, whom he called old-fashioned.

"It was coach-shock, so to speak," Davis said.

Throughout preseason workouts, he wondered if he could deal with a coach who wouldn't let him play as he always had _ with freedom to improvise. Kines, like his boss, defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews, believed in the time-honored scheme of giving each player specific assignments, without much leeway to do his own thing.

"He's a great guy, but we personally clashed," Davis said. "Your position coach is the guy you can go to if you can't go to your family. That's the way it is in Daytona. Me and coach Kines just did not see eye to eye."

After the season opener, Davis told his family he couldn't remain a Seminole and left the team to go home, mulling over schools he might want to transfer to, including Florida.

A few days later, he returned to Tallahassee.

While his teammates understood his frustration, his return did not come without a price tag. After practice for a while, he would run the stadium steps, or push a board the width of the field, or run with weights tied to him. He had to show how much being a part of the program meant.

"We didn't want promises, we wanted a commitment," Andrews said. "He actually went through a process of trying to decide if the rewards were worth the cost. He probably paid as big a price of coming back as anybody we've ever had. We didn't make it easy for him. We wanted to make sure it was real.

"The thing he had to do, he just had to get on the same page and understand that there weren't any shortcuts and we weren't going to play favorites and you earn your playing time right out there. And you have to do things off the field as well.

"I'm not trying to say negative things about him. He'll tell you, he had some maturing to do. You'll always find some hard-headed players. There's some hard-headed people around here that blow whistles, too."

In January 2003, the cast with the whistles changed.

Kines left to become the defensive coordinator at Alabama and Steele took his place. Not that Davis and Steele hit it off immediately and Davis' career suddenly took a new turn. He appeared briefly in only five games last season.

"Your pants are going to stay clean until you do it our way," Steele told him.

Beginning with the Orange Bowl, Steele said he saw a new Davis, and Davis saw a different Steele. They trusted one another.

"He's taught me how to make plays within the system," Davis said. "I'm on the same page as him and I'm making play after play after play. I'm actually for the first time (here) enjoying myself. I haven't enjoyed playing football in a long time and now it's just so natural to me again."