After listening to Josh Francis
talk about this year’s defense, it’s pretty clear that he is much happier playing in the 3-4 scheme that new defensive coordinator Joe DeForest has adopted.
Francis said he could never quite wrap his arms around the fact that a good portion of his responsibility playing linebacker in last year’s 3-3-stack revolved around him taking on 300-pound offensive linemen.
“Part of the 3-3-5 is you are engaged with linemen a lot. I’ve never engaged with linemen on every play,” the Damascus, Md., resident admitted. “In this defense you are not engaged with linemen. You are doing more of your craft and that’s what I believe a football player should always want to perfect is his craft. That’s what this defense and these coaches allow you to do every snap.”
Of course, Francis’ craft is running to the football. Although not quite as big as Bruce Irvin [he is listed at 6-feet-1, 221 pounds following spring practice], Francis possesses the same type of explosion that Irvin has coming off the edge as a pass rusher.
What the new coaching staff wants to do is simplify things for Francis to enable him to use his great speed to make things happen on the football field. Last year, there were times when Francis admits he was running around in a fog and that can be a difficult situation to be in when things are coming at you so quickly.
“That 3-3-5 was a whole new thing for me,” Francis said, shaking his head. “You had to cover down on a scat-back, go into a flat or a third and handle the guard or tackle at the same time, so of course, there was a lot more [responsibilities].”
Francis remembers the helpless feeling he had facing LSU last year when he wasn’t totally sure what he was supposed to do.
“When you are rushed like that … depending on the player, you get guys that are blessed with instincts and pretty much their instincts take over,” he explained. “But when you’ve got 65,000 people screaming and you are trying to focus on, ‘Man I’ve got to be on the d-tackle right now’ or be in the flat or drop back, all of those things can overwhelm a player. When you know you have just one assignment, and instincts on top of that, that’s a dangerous kind of player.”
Naturally, Francis was stung by the criticism that he received last fall insinuating that he didn’t know what he was doing and that he was a lost cause in the defense.
“I read papers that said I didn’t know where I was going sometimes and things like that - not knowing where you are going against LSU against such a team like that and still being able to record [four] tackles, that’s on pace to have a big season, he said. “Of course I didn’t get to play the rest of the season.
“But that has nothing to do with the type of player I believe I am.”
And just what type of player is that?
“I like to move around a lot,” he said. “The position I play, which is Buck, just allows me to move more fluid. My responsibilities require less thinking and more just me just being free. If I’m stationary, I really don’t think that’s my type of play.”
This year Francis will be asked to do more than just rush the passer or use his outstanding speed to stick with smaller scat-backs in the passing game. There are also going to be times when he is required to man-up and handle the power running games that teams like Texas, Kansas State and Oklahoma are going to throw at him.
“I believe I can stand up against the run,” he said. “I played against LSU last year and was going against like a 285-pound fullback all game. And I was less weight then and now I am 10 pounds heavier, so that’s going to make a difference. It’s just up to what the coaches are going to want to do for me and my teammates.”
Freelancing is probably not the proper term for what DeForest allows his players to do, but the defenders in this defense say they do have more freedom to make plays and play off each other – something Francis clearly is looking forward to. He said in last year’s defense players were required to be in specific areas on specific plays in order for it to function properly.
“You had to be [at the specific gap he was assigned to on a certain play] or that messed up everything for the next guy,” Francis said. “Essentially a linebacker was like a D-tackle or something like that. If that was the way in the NFL then a lot of linebackers’ careers wouldn’t be so long.”
Linebackers coach Keith Patterson preached all spring about his players being patient and not just blindly flying into the hole without reading all of their keys. Patience is almost counterintuitive for a position such as linebacker that requires immediate action, and it’s something Francis says he is still trying to figure out.
“You never want to over-run your gap responsibility,” he explained. “The things that go through a player’s mind before the ball is hiked is a lot. As long as you are going through all of the checks in your mind and things like that, you are going to be fine.”
Overall, Francis says he is much happier with where he stands right now in the new defensive system. His responsibilities are much clearer to him, he is more confident in what he’s doing and he believes it better suits his talents.
Now with his mind freed up, and his feet untied, there are many who believe Francis has a chance to become one of this year’s big playmakers on defense.
He is certainly expecting to have a big senior season.
“It’s a blessing the whole move that happened with the staff, the conference and all of that,” he concluded.
The Mountaineers are off on Sunday and will resume preseason practice on Monday.Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History available in bookstores this fall. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.