When he was growing up, A.J. Francis idolized The Rock, Charles Barkley and Reggie White, and he possesses elements of each — the girth, the candor, the ability to menace a quarterback.
The chatty, playful fifth-year senior, who is expected to be an anchor on Maryland's defensive line, has a big body and a big personality that makes him a natural — if somewhat unorthodox — leader of a team with an unusual number of first-year players in important roles.
He has written rap songs and poetry, loves to tweet, and is a natural performer and comedian — all of which makes him a media favorite and also a curiosity in a sport that can seem regimented.
Francis, who has played in the past 37 Maryland games, said after practice the other day that he aspires to a very specific political office.
"Hopefully one day I can be governor of Maryland," he said. "It's been my goal for a long time. [Gov.] Martin O'Malley went to my high school (Washington's Gonzaga College High School) so maybe mayor of Baltimore and then governor of Maryland, one of those routes."
Asked if he were serious — it's not always easy to tell — Francis, a Democrat who interned over the summer in the Greenbelt office of U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., replied quickly.
"Absolutely," he said. "I think I can make Maryland the greatest state in the union. I don't think I'm better than anybody else. But I have some ideas."
Not surprisingly, Francis, who is pursuing a master's degree in social policy, can make his coaches nervous.
Francis admitted that he clashed — if only at first — with coach Randy Edsall, who is entering his second season in College Park.
"Last year, Coach Edsall didn't know who I was. He didn't know me from a hole in the ground," Francis said. "When he saw me out here joking around and having a good time, he didn't know that I'm also a very hard worker. So at first I feel like there was a clash. But then once he realized I'm not just out here talking — that I'm a hard worker — he was able to understand my personality. Now he jokes around with me at practice sometimes."
After Maryland's 2-10 disappointment in 2011, Francis wants his final college season to be more successful for the Terps. He also wants to impress NFL scouts. He would happily postpone his political career for the chance to play professional football.
It's important for the Terps that Edsall and Francis get along. Francis — who switched in the preseason from nose tackle to end — is a key to the Terps holding their ground at the line of scrimmage in new coordinator Brian Stewart's 3-4 defense.
Asked about Francis, Edsall seemed to suppress a smile.
"He's fun for the reporters, but you cringe as a coach because you never know what he might — no, I'm just kidding," the coach said. "I want guys who have personalities. You can have a personality but you have to stay within the limits of the organization or the program that you're working with, whether it's in college or whether it's when you get out in the real world. "
Not long after Edsall arrived here from Connecticut, Francis fell victim to his coach's new rules. "I got punished one time for being late," he said last year. Francis said he had a valid reason for his lateness — "it wasn't really my fault" — but didn't want to explain the reason to a reporter. He said his punishment was a lengthy "bear crawl," an exercise that begins by dropping onto all fours.
Said Edsall this week: "I think A.J. has come to know what I expect. I don't mean this as a negative standpoint, but I think he's matured a lot in the last year."
Francis, 6 feet 4 and about 300 pounds, said he knows when to turn off the jokes. He said he is not a trash-talker during games, although he made a special exception for one of Maryland's border-state rivals.
"I think the only game I ever talked last year on the field was Virginia because, you know, that's just the Virginia game," he said.
Off the field, he can be an oversized bundle of fun.
He once composed a rap remix for the women's lacrosse team to use during warm-ups. It was set to the beat of rapper Wiz Khalifa's "Black and Yellow."
A few years ago, Francis was asked during an interview whether he could recite a song he had written.
He closed his eyes and began speaking the lyrics.
"I've been up and I've been down," he said softly. "Realize money isn't everything. Been in the club and popped champagne. But look in my eyes, you can see how I've changed. 'Cause everybody wants to be a baller. But money don't solve your problems. I've been up and I've been down. But money isn't everything."
He said recently that he hasn't found time to compose songs lately. There's the season to think about, and so much more.
"You know what, I wouldn't put it past him," Edsall said when asked about the player's dream of becoming governor. "I haven't heard [about] the mayor of Baltimore. I heard he was going right to the top."
Maryland at a glance
Coach: Randy Edsall (second season)
Conference: Atlantic Coast Conference
Last season: 2-10
Radio: 105.7 FM, 1300 AM
Stadium: Byrd Stadium
Tickets: $25-$55 for single games. Season tickets are available.
Parking: $15 without season permit. Various options available (umterps.com).
Offense: Multiple pro-style
Outlook: On Media Day, Maryland coach Randy Edsall sat next to redshirt junior quarterback C.J. Brown as the Terps posed for their team picture. Brown, the only quarterback with college game experience, was to be the coach's extension on the field. But Brown tore his anterior cruciate ligament and is out for the season. His injury leaves Edsall with true freshman Perry Hills as the starter. Edsall begins his second Maryland season with more true freshmen in important roles than at any time since he's been a head coach. There is also a new offensive coordinator, Mike Locksley, who brings a pro-style attack with varying sets. There is a new defensive coordinator, Brian Stewart, who has installed a 3-4 scheme. Maryland ended 2011 on an eight-game losing streak. Their hopes rest in large part on their new players. The Terps will try to get the ball to freshman receiver-returner Stefon Diggs, the program's most coveted recruit in years. He was lining up as a slot receiver in training camp and returning kicks and punts. On defense, Maryland's best player is senior defensive lineman Joe Vellano, a preseason All-ACC pick. The defense has been beset with preseason injuries. Among the missing in the season opener are safety Matt Robinson (shoulder) and linebacker Kenny Tate (knee).Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun