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A.J. Francis plugs big hole in Terps’ 3-4 alignment

Stewart’s system suits defensive tackle

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Defensive tackle A.J. Francis floated in and out of Maryland's lineup last year, perhaps the surest sign the Terrapins' new scheme was a poor fit for the multiyear starter.

His senior year, however, promises to be much different.

Francis is one of the biggest beneficiaries of Maryland's hiring of Brian Stewart, who installed a 3-4 defense this spring. Francis plugs up the middle at nose tackle, a position well-suited to the loquacious lineman's talents.

"We even get recognized," Francis said heading into Maryland's spring game at 1 p.m. Saturday at Byrd Stadium. "You get production points for taking double teams, which is literally unheard of. I don't know if that's ever been done in the history of football, but big guys finally get the love for that, which is good."

It is a season of renewal for Francis, who started 19 games in his first two seasons but just four last fall as the Terps tumbled to 2-10. He had 31 tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks as a junior, but his role shrank as the season unfolded.

Part of the issue was weight. Francis was listed at 295 pounds last season and was asked to play at a much lower weight than he had earlier in his career when he earned honorable mention freshman All-America honors. He's back up to between 303 and 311 pounds, a more ideal size both for his style of play and what the Terps will need from him.

"It fits his skill set really well," defensive line coach Greg Gattuso said of the 3-4 defense. "Last year, we were asking him to do some things that weren't necessarily his best [strengths]. This is right up his alley."

It isn't hard to envision a revitalized Francis solidifying a defensive line that appears to be a strength. Former tackle Joe Vellano, who will miss the spring game with a foot injury, will slide over to end. So will sophomore Andre Monroe, who impressed when healthy last year.

The Terps also have veterans Justin Anderson and Isaiah Ross at end and several experienced linebackers to work with. But a big run-stopper is a crucial component to making the defense operate efficiently.

"He's controlling the A-gap so the center doesn't knock the living daylights out of the Mike [linebacker]," Stewart said. "He's done a good job of that. I think if you look at mental errors, I don't think he's had a mental error this spring. If he has, it's been one or two. I think he's been a strong, consistent player for us."

It's also helped Francis' state of mind as he heads into his last year with the Terps.

"I feel like the last three months have been so much better than the last 15," Francis said. "It's not even funny how much better it is. I feel a lot more at home. I feel like over the last three months, we have more cohesion than we had before. I think we're coming along a lot better, and I think the coaches know what to expect out of every guy they've seen over the last year."

It's just another welcome development for Francis, who earned his undergraduate degree in December and has an internship in Rep. Steny H. Hoyer's Greenbelt district office this summer.

Beyond that is an autumn Francis is eager for, especially since he's such a good fit in Maryland's latest system.

"I love the new defense, I really do," Francis said. "I get to play physical. I was never good at ripping gaps or stuff like that. I've always been like an O-lineman on D-line, so I always wanted to play physical, and now I get the chance to do it."

NOTE: Maryland will use a modified scoring system in the spring game, with points awarded to the offense (usual scores, plus first downs and long rushing or passing plays) and the defense (usual scores, plus stops, sacks, turnovers, three-and-outs and blocked field goal attempts).

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