WVU football: With new defense, Francis feels free
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- When Josh Francis closes the door to his locker and heads for home, he leaves behind something valuable: Everything that happened to the West Virginia linebacker that day.
"Leave it there," Francis said. "Don't take it home with you."
The senior, second-season junior college transfer learned that lesson last season. He arrived last spring with All-America honors earned at Lackawanna (Pa.) College and All-American visions for the Mountaineers.
He ended up playing just eight games and starting but once. Francis made nine tackles and admitted at the start of his second spring practice that the 2011 season was as difficult as the statistics suggest.
"I could say it was extremely hard for me," the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Francis said. "I never gave football a rest. I felt myself bringing it home with me and then thinking about it way too much."
Francis was like all the other junior college transfers. He was eager and anxious and he knew he only had so much time with which to work. He wanted success fast and had a hard time coping when it didn't happen.
He was used to doing things his way at Lackawanna and raking in the rewards.
He wasn't used to doing things a new way - the 3-3-5 way - at WVU and having nothing to show for it.
Simply put, the season progressed and Francis didn't.
"I really didn't deal with it well," he said. "It wasn't until after everything had settled when I was able to understand that I was wrong in the was I was going about things last year."
Things have changed. The defensive coaching staff is entirely new and the Mountaineers will play a base 3-4 as opposed to the old 3-3-5 odd stack. The new scheme features linebackers differently and uses the "Buck" position to make the most of a player like Francis - fast enough to play an outside linebacker position, skilled enough to masquerade as a defensive end
"I feel more free now because I have more freedom," he said. "I don't bring the game home with me. I leave it where it's supposed to be and my mind is clear when I sleep."
Jeff Casteel, WVU's defensive coordinator and linebackers coach from 2003-11, didn't ask linebackers to blitz often. He wanted them instead to help control the pass and stop the run.
That was new for Francis.
"I've gotten through football all my life just by my reactions and my ability the Lord blessed me with," Francis said. "Every coach I've had was able to recognize that, I believe, and just drew up plays where it was more like reacting instead of, 'Don't go right. Don't go left.' It was, 'Here, just react to the football.'
"Last year was not like that. I'd say they taught me the game more last year than ever before."
New defensive coordinator/safeties coach Joe DeForest and co-coordinator/linebackers coach Keith Patterson offer a new approach. They have a plan, just like Casteel did, and they have ways to use players, but it is a change from Casteel.
These Mountaineers have two middle linebackers who have mostly traditional duties, but also Buck and "Sam" outside positions that are hybrid players.
The Sam is a safety/linebacker and will likely be played by strong safety Terence Garvin during the season. He's out for the spring as he recovers from knee surgery.
The Buck is an end/linebacker and Francis, who isn't profiled in the team's spring prospectus, has a chance this spring to get back to where he once was.
Sophomore Jewone Snow is listed atop the depth chart, but he, too, is out for the spring. Snow, who made 42 tackles in 11 games and seven starts at middle linebacker, had offseason shoulder surgery.
"I feel like it's a brand new start," Francis said.
Patterson said the linebacker positions are very similar to Casteel's, but the duties are different. Both the outside positions have to be able to get into the backfield, flow into the line of scrimmage and cover the pass, but also blitz and rush the passer.
"Buck is a high-energy guy," Francis said. "You've got to be in shape to play that position. And he has a lot of freedom on the field, if not the most freedom. He's freelancing a lot."
That, Francis said, is when he's most comfortable. It was his style before and he said it's probably been enhanced after learning from Casteel for one season.
There was a time when what Francis did best was evaluated by a stopwatch and not on film. He was a blur coming around the corner for Lackawanna and he said he basically raced around an offensive tackle to make plays.
In two seasons, he had 95 tackles and 13 sacks. In 2010, Francis, of Damascus, Md., was a national junior college All-America first team selection. The Buck position will ask him to do that again, but with that nuances that frustrated him a year ago
"I rushed the passer before, but not like this," he said. "Technique separates guys at that position. You get taught how to use your hands more, when to use speed, how to dip your shoulder. Then it's on you to put it all together."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.