WVU football: Linebacker simplifies for success
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Hard as it may be to believe, Josh Francis actually had started at linebacker for West Virginia before taking the field to begin Saturday's 42-12 win against James Madison.
That previous start was last season against would-be No. 1 LSU. Francis was rarely used after that and didn't start in the 2012 season opener against Marshall.
Don't think those two are connected, though. For starters, these WVU coaches tend to treat starting lineups like neckties and match the personnel with the opposition's philosophy.
But before all of that, first-year defensive line coach Erik Slaughter did what all of the other first-year assistants did, be it in 2011 or in 2012, to learn about the players he was inheriting. He watched no film of the 2011 season and instead learned about the linemen and the rush linebackers, like Francis, by talking football with them.
The first time Slaughter was in a room with Francis he was going over plays the defense was installing. Slaughter stopped and asked Francis about what he was supposed to do as the buck linebacker - which at WVU is a rush linebacker masquerading as a defensive end.
Slaughter was looking for a technical explanation of the specific responsibility. Francis was a bit more primitive, but no less accurate.
"See ball, hit ball," he said.
Right there, months before the Mountaineers (2-0) would play a game or Slaughter would trust Francis to start against a team that liked to pass, but also utilize a running quarterback, Slaughter knew he had something.
"I liked him right away," Slaughter said. "I knew he was going to be a guy who'd go after the football and be aggressive with what he did. It was going to be my job to let him play fast and understand where to go to get the ball and then how to hit the ball."
Francis was named WVU's defensive player of the week for making five tackles against the Dukes, including a solo tackle and an assist for a loss.
"I felt like I was in junior college playing football again," Francis said. "I didn't want to think at all. I was just reacting, which is what I've always done in football - just react. I was fine with it."
The trouble for Francis, a junior college All-American in 2010 at Lackawanna (Pa.) College who arrived at WVU in time for 2011 spring practice, is that his WVU coaches weren't always fine with it. Former defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jeff Casteel developed concerns about Francis.
Casteel's 3-3-5 was based on discipline and responsibility and trusting teammates to do the right things. It asked a defender to anticipate, understand, identify and respond to so many things that Francis admitted he let clouds settle in his head and obstacles fall into place that he would never overcome.
Gloves fit on feet better than Francis fit in the 3-3-5.
"I really, firmly believe in the 3-3-5 you had a read, you digested the read and sometimes you still had to sit," he said. "Football is a conditioned response, from when you're a Little League kid, that you hustle to the football and run to the football 100 miles per hour and gang tackle. In the 3-3-5 defense, you couldn't do that - or I didn't believe you could do that.
"It had an effect on my play and on my game."
Francis played in only eight games and made just nine tackles, four coming against LSU and two coming a week later late in a blowout win against Bowling Green. He did mostly special teams the rest of the season, a far, agonizing cry from 95 tackles and 13 sacks in two seasons at Lackawanna.
Casteel left for Arizona in the winter, but Francis realized how much the experience meant to him. He didn't like it. He feels like he was deprived opportunities to play. But he's learned to do things he couldn't, or more likely wouldn't, do before.
"Coach Casteel - even though we probably had our downfalls - he's a great coach and a great defensive coordinator," said Francis, a 6-foot, 225-pound native of Damascus, Md.
Francis realizes that junior college never asked him to learn things Casteel required, but that those were things Francis needed to understand to get to where he is today.
"That whole year that I was getting forced through fire, I believe I was also learning through the process and learning how defenses work," he said. "I'm just a better player now."
It helps that he's been liberated by Slaughter and defensive coordinator Joe DeForest, who has a 3-4 defense that specializes players like Francis to pressure and sack the quarterback. That should come in handy when No. 8 WVU (2-0) hosts to Maryland (2-1) at noon Saturday at Mountaineer Field (FX telecast).
Only six teams have allowed more than the 10 sacks the Terrapins have surrendered - and those are all in the past two games.
"I think we're going to get after Maryland and affect their offensive line," Francis said. "I do believe the game plan is going to open up a lot of opportunities for people coming off the edge."
Francis will be involved because this is a defense that encourages a fast and relentless Francis, the second biggest change for him this season. The only one greater is that Francis is adept at thinking through the things that once stumped him.
What impresses Slaughter most is that once the ball is snapped, Francis arrives at conclusions quicker than he arrives at the quarterback.
"There are situations he's got to play fast and situations where he has to slow down and see things and process them and he's got to do both at that buck position," Slaughter said. "He's done both well. When he's put in a position to go, he's gone. When he's put in a situation where he has to see things and let them develop, he's done that as well."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.