Maryland’s Francis has the last word

COLLEGE PARK — At 6 feet 4 and 315 pounds, A.J. Francis made the most of his bit roles in high school musicals, turning in memorable performances as Officer Krupke in "West Side Story" and the thuggish gambler Big Jule in "Guys and Dolls."

Now the one-time song-and-dance man would like to chew up the scenery and the opposition as the leading man on Maryland's defensive line, starting with today's Red-White Spring Game at Byrd Stadium.

"It's all entertainment," says Francis, a nose tackle, of his passion for the bright lights of stage and stadium. "You play football, it's a game. Growing up, before I knew I wanted to be in government and politics, I wanted to play football."

That's right; the Severn resident also has a hankering for the spotlight on Capitol Hill.

But that will have to come later because, make no mistake about it, Francis' focus is on football.

Since arriving at College Park after graduating from Washington's Gonzaga College High in 2008, Francis has worked on his conditioning and technique. He dropped about 20 pounds and slashed his body fat nearly in half.

As a redshirt freshman last season, he played in all 12 games, starting 10. He led all Maryland linemen with 31 tackles.

"He did an excellent job. Playing in the ACC isn't easy, and he exceeded expectations," defensive coach Dave Sollazzo says. "But he was a little overweight. [Director of strength and conditioning] Dwight Galt helped build body mass, and he really got rid of his baby fat. Now, he's a lot faster, a lot quicker."

Francis smiles at the praise.

"Every semester, I come with a new goal for myself," he says. "First semester here, I said, ‘OK, I want to get my fundamentals down,' because my fundamentals were awful coming out of high school. And I did that. My second semester, I said, ‘OK, I want to make more plays,' and I did that. My third semester, I wanted to start as a redshirt freshman. I lucked into a starting job when Dion Armstrong transferred and I took full advantage of it.

"Now I'm in my fourth semester and I'm not going to be satisfied until I'm an All-America. If I'm not an academic and athletic All-American by the time I leave Maryland, then I didn't take advantage of the opportunities here."

As you can see, Francis is a man of his word. Make that many words.

He writes poetry and raps (Jack Diamond and Tha Franchyze are among his monikers). He knows his way around a Broadway play. And whether it's at practice or at a team function, he's never at a loss.

At a recent dinner for recruits, Francis was called upon to give the blessing.

"He just blew the place away," Sollazzo says. "It was deep. It was very touching. It came from the heart. You could look around the room and see, ‘Wow.'

"Of course," he says, pausing and laughing, "It was long-winded."

Francis gave coach Ralph Friedgen his word more than a year before graduation that he would attend Maryland. Despite being recruited by other programs, including Georgia Tech, he kept his promise, signing a letter of intent in February 2008.

Although the coach gave Francis the option of playing offense or defense, then-defensive coordinator Chris Cosh insisted on his side of the ball.

Now Friedgen, who loves Francis' drive and leadership skills, might like to turn things around.

"He could play on either side of the football, but I think he would be a better offensive lineman," Friedgen says. "For his future, I think he would have a chance to play at the next level.

"A.J.'s a very solid, very smart individual. I think he would be a real center of strength for us there and build confidence, the way he does on the defensive side of the ball. He would be the leader of my offensive line because he's an extrovert. … I need a guy to kind of control things up there."

Friedgen says he doesn't feel he has to force the issue at this point, because "at least I'm going to see how things turn out the rest of this spring."

For his part, Francis is dragging his size- 17 feet.

"If when I first got here as a freshman and they told me I was going to be on the offensive line, I'd be playing offensive line right now. I don't really want to give up all the progress I've made to start anew."

As the son of a coach — Mike Francis, who spent a decade at the helm of the North County High varsity basketball team before switching to CCBC-Essex — Francis knows the pressure of high expectations.

Francis recalls as a 9-year-old playing basketball with future Terps forward Dino Gregory (The Sun's 2007 All-Baltimore City Player of the Year) on a team that beat an opponent, 85-0, with Francis scoring 30.

"All my dad said to me after the game was, ‘You didn't show any hustle on defense.'

"That's the way my dad is. He's always looking for a way for me to get better."

Off the field, Francis was one of three Maryland players named to the ACC's 2009 All-Academic football team. He's carrying a 3.2 grade-point average, with a major in government.

Like most athletes, he watches ESPN, but CNN and PBS catch his eye, too — it's the politics thing.

"I like that if politics is done right, it can help people," he says. "The presidential election showed me anything can happen. If you had asked people a year before the election who would be elected, they would have said Rudy Giuliani."

But before he can imagine a life as, perhaps, Congressman Francis or Tha Franchyze, Francis wants to make the most of his time as No. 96.

"Everything I've worked for in my entire life has led to this point," Francis says quietly. "I've got to make sure that I take full advantage of this and not take for granted this opportunity that's been given to me."

What: Red-White Spring Game
Where: Byrd Stadium
When: Saturday
Time: autograph session, 12:30; kickoff, 3:30
Tickets: Free

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