Florida State middle linebacker Buster Davis has always been the underdog. It begins with his height. He is listed at just 5-foot-9 and weighs in at 239 pounds - a frame that is not favorable for a middle linebacker. Consequently, he plays with an animal ferocity befitting of a player who has had to prove himself at every stop in the road.
Coming out of Mainland High School in Daytona Beach, Fla. Davis was listed on all major recruiting lists but never as one of the premier players. Even though he put up stellar numbers, recording 140 tackles his senior year and nearly 400 total stops for his career, he still was not given the respect that someone with that pedigree usually receives.
Davis entered the Seminoles' program in 2002. After redshirting his first year at the school, he saw limited action in seven games during his first season. He recorded five tackles and began his ascent to the top of the depth chart.
The 2004 season, Davis' sophomore year, saw him begin to emerge as a playmaker. He started 11 out of 12 games, making 60 tackles including eight for a loss, and he earned his first sack of his career.
The following season Davis continued to prove his worth. Playing alongside linebackers A.J. Nicholson and Ernie Sims he still was able to scoop up 91 tackles, good for seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference, along with 10.5 tackles for loss. Even with numbers like that he was still overshadowed by his formidable counterparts, and this added to his competitive fire going in to his senior season.
In his final campaign for the Seminoles, Davis played with an evident determination. He ran around like an escaped convict, amassing 102 tackles including six in each game he played in that season. His five sacks brought his career total to eight; he finished with 258 tackles, 25.5 for a loss.
Most scouts around the league agree that Davis' biggest strength is his instinctual reaction. He is what one would call a natural football player and thus has been said to have a very high "football IQ." This benefits him in a variety of ways. He learns plays very easily, only needing a few reps to understand the scheme. When reacting to the offense he is quick to make his reads and recognize the receiver's routes. He always seems to be around the action with range to make it wherever he is needed. When he gets there, he has proven to be a solid tackler and extremely aggressive.
As a result of his smaller stature, Davis is capable of the big hit - being low to the ground has its advantages. He has displayed this in the backfield many times as his football knowledge and natural aggression make him more than adequate in pressure situations.
Although Davis' time in the 40-yard dash was on the slower end (he ran a 4.64), he does have quick feet, which is why he always seems to be in the middle of most plays.
Another great aspect about Davis is his durability. He's been a solid rock for the Florida State defense - not missing a game throughout his three years as a starter, and this has translated into a wealth of experience.
The biggest knock on Davis continues to be his height. There are very few players who succeed in the NFL with such a disadvantage, so it becomes a sticking point for many teams. Where this weakness really shows its true colors is in traffic. He does a decent job shedding blockers because of his low center of gravity and quick initial burst, but he does occasionally get lost in the shuffle - especially when a blocker is able to reach him and get hands on him. He has trouble shedding these blocks, which could be a problem in the NFL where players are bigger and stronger.
Davis plays well on passing downs when the receiver stays in front of him and in the short area of the field, but due to his less than average timed speed his coverage skills down field are lacking.
While the fierce nature that he brings to the field has established who Davis is as a player, it also works against him sometimes. He has a tendency to be over aggressive and occasionally over-run the play.
Great hands are not needed in a linebacker, but they are always an advantage. Davis cannot count them as one of his as his ability to haul in an interception borders on defensive lineman territory. He tends to let the ball come into his chest, swinging his arms like an alligator rather than catching it cleanly with his hands.
The last real negative that Davis has is his work ethic. He takes a lot of his natural ability for granted; he can tend to coast through practice and does not spend as much time with his off-field preparation. He is entering the top tier of his sport where every advantage and disadvantage is analyzed as well as exploited. Being that he is already at a disadvantage with his height, he is going to have to use everything else at his disposal to prevail. This means extra film study in order to use his intelligence to overcome his deficiency.
Most draft experts have Davis ranked in the top five of the middle linebacker class but usually towards the short end. KFFL currently ranks him as the fourth-best inside/middle linebacker available in the draft, but we acknowledge his upside.
Everyone agrees that he is a great player, but the size problem is really what's holding him back. As a result, he is going to be more of a "system player" when he gets to the NFL - someone who needs to be in the right defensive system to succeed. This means a team who likes quicker linebackers, like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Indianapolis Colts, is going to be more predisposed to taking him. It would be tougher for him to play in the 3-4 defense that is getting popular because of his difficulty shedding the larger blockers.
Davis' value is going to fluctuate from team to team, so where he is drafted will entirely depend upon what happens early during the process. If linebackers begin flying off the shelf and a team that really likes him is picking, he could go as early as the end of the second round. This doesn't seem too likely, so he will probably be taken somewhere in the third round, and its entirely possible that teams will be so nervous about his build they will stay away until the second day of the draft.
Scouts have compared Davis to a whole host of different players, from London Fletcher-Baker and Zach Thomas to a former Carolina Panthers' workhorse, the late Sam Mills. That's not a bad band of players to be grouped with, and teams looking for a player to replicate their successes will surely take a long, hard look at Davis.