Maryland's Francis helps keep Terps loose

Sophomore defensive tackle, along with senior linebackers Moten and Wujciak, lighten things up for UM football team

September 22, 2010|By Jeff Barker, The Baltimore Sun

COLLEGE PARK — — The Maryland Terrapins chanted and bobbed their heads as they emerged from the tunnel at M&T Bank Stadium to take on Navy in the season opener.

"Yeah, it's on baby, ooh aah!" the players shouted in unison.

If it looked like a scene from the high-school football movie "Remember the Titans," the players weren't apologizing.

"We do that pretty much every time we come out of a tunnel, usually on away games," nose tackle A.J. Francis said. "There's not really a tunnel coming out of our [Byrd Stadium] locker room, so there's not time to do that."

The chant is among a number of activities that many Terps perform — there's also rapping, yoga and a variety of pre-game superstitions — to deflect the pressures of playing college football on a big stage.

The way Francis and other Terps see it, the sport is all about being impassioned without being uptight. It's about finding proper balance.

The pressures facing the Terps this season can weigh on the young team. After finishing 2-10 last year, Maryland was picked to again finish last in their Atlantic Coast Conference division by ACC media. The players are anxious — desperate, even — to prove the media wrong and spare head coach Ralph Friedgen another offseason period of wondering if he will retain his job. The coach has one more season remaining on his contract after this year.

Francis and senior linebackers Alex Wujciak and Adrian Moten are among the Terps unofficially tasked with keeping the team loose.

On the practice field, Moten and Wujciak seem to be in constant motion — making tackles, exhorting teammates with fist pumps, leaping to celebrate big plays. Move closer and you discover it's not only their arms and legs that rarely stop moving, it's also their mouths. They trash-talk their teammates and joke with their coaches.

"Wujciak and Moten, even [quarterback] Danny O'Brien — we've got a lot of guys I would say that are like that and keep it loose and light," said offensive coordinator James Franklin. "[Receiver-returner] Torrey Smith is a little bit like that."

In fact, Franklin sometimes wishes he had more traditional leaders — the sort that can get in a teammate's face — than the type that keep players at ease.

"I would say we have more of that than we have the strong, stern, vocal leader type of guy," Franklin said. "Moten is kind of an interesting guy because he can do a little bit of both. Wujciak can kind of hit it from both angles. On offense, I'd say Torrey and probably [running back] Da'Rel Scott [are leaders]. We have a limited amount of seniors."

Franklin has been working with starting quarterback Jamarr Robinson — a redshirt junior to whom an outspoken role doesn't come naturally — to be more vocal with his teammates.

It was Smith, an all-ACC preseason selection, who addressed players in the locker room at halftime of the Navy game. The Terps were winning 14-7, and Smith — in a speech captured on Friedgen's weekly television show — told his teammates this was just the sort of opportunity to close out a game that they had been imagining in the offseason.

Maryland won, 17-14, to snap a seven-game losing streak from the previous season. The Terps are 2-1 as they prepare to face Florida International (0-2) on Saturday at Byrd Stadium. Maryland's ACC schedule begins a week later with a home game against Duke.

Francis, 6 feet 4 and about 300 pounds, said he knows when to turn off the jokes.

"It's funny because during practice, I'm talking a lot, [and I] might be joking around with some of the guys on the field. But on game day I don't really say anything," said the redshirt sophomore, who is from Severn and attended Washington's Gonzaga College High. Francis had five tackles and a quarterback hurry in Maryland's 31-17 loss at West Virginia last Saturday.

On non-game days, Francis writes songs and poetry and does freestyle rap with offensive lineman Justin Lewis, linebacker Ben Pooler and other teammates.

He said he eats the same dinner for good luck on the night before every game: mashed potatoes, pasta, grilled chicken and steak, all smothered in white alfredo sauce.

"He's definitely a character," Wujciak said of Francis. "You can't have everybody uptight.'

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Francis was asked during an interview if he could recite one of his songs from memory.

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."

Asked if he believed he had talent as a songwriter, Francis replied: "I've been doing it since I was 16 years old. If I wasn't good, it would be a waste of my time."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sunjeffbarker

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