Mountaineers' Francis makes good impression
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The tempo for West Virginia's spring football practices is not a problem for Josh Francis.
The workouts and the new Mountaineer linebacker are all about speed.
"The big thing is doing what I'm supposed to do when I'm supposed to do it," Francis said after a recent practice.
The deal is that Francis, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound transfer from Lackawanna Junior College in Scranton, Pa., might not yet grasp all the nuances in WVU's 3-3-5 odd stack scheme, but when he flies from the weakside spot, it's easy to see he's going to play.
"Josh has great athleticism, head to toe, and he's so fast. The guy's a flying bullet," said WVU strongside starter Najae Goode, the experienced veteran (13 career starts) among a young Mountaineer unit. "This defense is a little different to learn, but the stuff we build on every day, he's already a lot better.
"The big thing is that Josh's 50 percent is 100 percent for everybody else, kind of like that."
Francis, of Damascus, Md., has a distinctive nickname - "Road Closed."
He arrived at WVU with an idea that he isn't supposed to be like most other new faces in Coach Bill Stewart's final season. After all, he was one of only two junior college signees in the 2011 recruiting class.
He was needed on a linebacker unit that lost 79 career starts, from a defense that ranked third nationally last season.
"The expectations, a junior coming in, you're not really supposed be on the bench, a lot of fans have expectations of you because of what you did in junior college," Francis said. "When you come in and don't produce, it's bad.
"It's not so much stressful from a player-to-fan sort of view, but stressful because I know I'm a good player and I know I can make plays ... When you're in a new system, learning new things, new plays, it's hard to adjust real fast.
"And when you're not making plays, that is stressful."
WVU defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jeff Casteel, after only six spring workouts, isn't ready to call Francis a starter ... yet.
"We really like him," Casteel said. "Josh is a guy who can move around, really explosive and has a big punch. He's not a big kid, but he's got a lot of pop in him. He's still learning a little bit about what we're doing. but you can see he's got a lot of natural ability.
"I think if he continues to progress like he is, there are a lot of ways you're going to be able to utilize him. He's going to be a factor on early downs and I also think impact some of our third-down packages, too. He can cover people and he has the ability to blitz. He's going to be a good football player for us."
Francis, a junior college All-American last season who enrolled at WVU in January, said that's happening naturally.
"The difference from junior college to here is the speed, Francis said, "and when you come to a program like this, it's going to be real fast at first.
"I found myself out there today, and the game was getting slower than it was couple weeks ago, or even couple days ago ... The first couple of workouts really surprised me, but after that, I loved the atmosphere here."
Francis called the 3-3-5 scheme "another defense for my resume," after he played in a 4-3 at Lackawanna and a 3-4 at Damascus High School. In junior college, he also played safety is some sets "able to cover receivers, to kind of hide things ... But this defense is how I play football, the speed, the chance to make plays.
"I've just got to keep learning. (Casteel) makes sure you're perfect. He wants you to be a perfect ballplayer. That's why he's one of the great defensive coordinators in the nation."
The defensive scheme isn't really why Francis picked WVU over other offers from programs like Southern Cal, Oregon, Arkansas, Pitt and North Carolina. His decision in some ways was about, well, something of a divine intervention.
"Coach Casteel, he actually coached my pastor, Clark Baisden (of Difference Makers Church, a Wesleyan congregation) when he was in college back at Shepherd," Francis said. "That was a big upside for me."
Baisden, who also is an assistant football coach at Damascus High, played in the secondary for Shepherd in the late '80s, when Casteel was an assistant there. Baisden is a Buckhannon native, Casteel said.
Francis cited another crucial connection in his decision-making.
"In junior college, when I was being heavily recruited, I wanted to go somewhere that they know Coach (Mark) Duda. Coach Kirlav (WVU defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich) recruited Coach Duda back in high school, and he's like 40 now, so they've known each other a long time. The string goes way back."
Goode, a fifth-year WVU senior, has seen his share of good LBs. He said Francis stands out in one way.
"He's a flying bullet out there," Goode said. "He might be the fastest linebacker we've ever had."
Contact Sports Editor Jack Bogaczyk at email@example.com or 304-348-7949.