PISCATAWAY, N.J. – An ankle injury against Louisville last November cost Rutgers red-shirt junior defensive end Justin Francis more than his availability to play the following week against West Virginia.
It played with his mind a bit.
Francis was coming off a red-shirt season in 2008, a year in which he battled a shoulder injury, and wanted to prove to himself he could withstand the grind of a full year. When his ankle was rolled on by another player against the Cardinals, Francis’ chance of playing in each game was gone.
He recovered in time to make two tackles, including a sack, against Central Florida in the St. Petersburg Bowl, but an empty feeling persisted.
“It was really frustrating that it was supposed to be my first whole year back, and I was working and working and working, and something happens in the Louisville game,” Francis said. “It hit me kind of hard, but I talked to my mother about it and kept my head straight and started my rehab as soon as I could. It hit me kind of hard.
“We’re a God-fearing family, and she told me to keep my head in the bible and gave me words of encouragement. I talked to coach (Greg Schiano) about it as well and my (teammates) on the defensive line. We talked about it, and I felt like I had to get back.”
The 6-foot-4, 262-pound Francis is a backup defensive end who plays a prominent role in Rutgers 4-3 defense since the Scarlet Knights rotate eight along the defensive line.
He made 21 tackles, including 3½ sacks, last season, and is having a strong training camp.
“In the spring I felt like I was just trying to get back into it and get my feet under me,” Francis said. “It was getting the fundamentals. Now, I’m still doing the same thing in training camp, but I feel like I have more ground under my feet.”
Francis said another key part of his development has been meeting with defensive line coach Randy Melvin and breaking down film with his teammates.
“I feel like I’ve been working on my pass rush a lot better,” Francis said. “I’ve been talking with coach Melvin a lot, and trying to switch up my different rushes, and working on them with my rush partner, (defensive tackle) Scott Vallone. We talk a lot about different things we want to do, different things we want to learn, and on different run plays working on my inside technique.
“We all sit around and talk about moves, or watch pass-rush tapes, go over different techniques. I think that’s what gave me the upper hand.”
Joe Lefeged has been the author of so many superior plays in practice over the years it’s impossible to count, which made his missed open-field tackle against Joe Martinek in Saturday’s scrimmage even more startling.
Martinek juked Lefeged on a 23-yard touchdown run, and after watching the film of it Lefeged was asked about it after Monday’s morning practice.
“I was mad at myself that I missed the tackle, but he made a great play,” Lefeged said. “I knew it was coming, but I couldn’t stop it. He made a great move. I came to balance a step too late, and that cost me. I broke down a little too late.”