SUWANEE, Ga. - When No. 25 for the Atlanta Falcons came up to stop Tampa Bay receiver Karl Williams for a short gain last Saturday night, the Georgia Dome crowd almost seemed surprised.
"So there's Devin Bush," the fans might have uttered collectively.
Bush, a late first-round pick out of Florida State in 1995, has been there all the time. He simply hasn't done much since his rookie year to garner notice.
Now in his third season, the stocky, 210-pound safety will have to start playing the hard-hitting football he was known for in college if he wants a long-range future with new coach Dan Reeves.
"I definitely think so," Reeves said. "He hasn't done anything that's caused you to worry about his position yet, but he's got to step it up and make plays. You don't see him doing anything bad, but you don't see him doing anything good, either."
Bush started the last five games of his rookie season at free safety, seemingly justifying his selection with the 26th pick when most analysts had him rated as a second-rounder. He even flashed all-star potential with a 15-tackle effort against the Miami Dolphins in a return to his home town, where he once worked as an usher for $40 a game at the Orange Bowl.
But after switching to strong safety last year, Bush managed only one interception and two passes knocked down in 15 starts. He led the secondary in tackles with 68, but that means little since no other defensive back started more than nine games.
Recognizing that Bush seemed more natural at free safety, the new coaching staff moved him back to that position for the '97 season. William White, a veteran free agent acquisition who last played for Kansas City, will start at strong safety.
"It didn't matter to me whether I played strong or free safety, and I've said that from the day I got here," Bush said. "Free safety is where people saw me first, and I guess they think that's where I should be playing. But last year, we struggled on offense and defense, and that had more to do with how I played than what position I was at."
During Bush's three years at FSU, the Seminoles won a national championship in 1993, finished second in 1992 and fourth in '94. Bush took the starting strong safety job as a sophomore and gained a reputation for big hits and game-breaking plays. He returned an interception for a touchdown in a victory over Miami during the national championship year, and had 13 tackles and an interception in a win over Notre Dame in 1994.
"We had a `refuse-to-lose' mentality in college, and that's what we're striving to have here," said Bush, 24, who has two years left on a four-year contract worth $3.346 million.
A second-team All-American in 1994, Bush almost decided against entering the draft after his junior year because he says the FSU coaches and others told him he would be a seventh-round pick at best.
In the days leading up to the draft, though, Bush's stock rose on several team's boards. He had an impressive workout for the Falcons, and the team was looking to draft a safety.
Now, the challenge of the Falcons coaches is to make Bush a good one.
"I'm not displeased with what I see, but he still has a way to go," said secondary coach Ron Meeks. "He hasn't had lot of opportunity so far in the preseason, but I think as we get closer to the regular games, he's going to show us he can do some things at that position that are necessary for us to be good back there."
The Falcons play the Washington Redskins on Saturday night in the Georgia Dome.