In the quest for a conference title in just its first year as a member of the Big 12 conference, West Virginia is going to need a fireworks display of effort and talent in all three facets of the game.
While the Mountaineers arrive on the scene armed with a few megatons of offensive power, it's the West Virginia defense that has its fan base drawing collective shrugs and blank stares.
This is where Josh Francis comes into the picture.
Francis, a native of Damascus, MD, and a former superstar at Lackawanna Junior College, is entering 2012 with the hope of redeeming himself after what was largely considered a let down season in 2011.
First and foremost, this isn't a flash-in-the-pan, Youtube superstar I'm talking about—Francis is talented. Very, very talented.
In Junior College Francis made running down receivers from his outside linebacker position a daily routine. At 6'1", 221 pounds, Francis played much bigger than his measurables indicated and was fearless stepping up in the box and stopping the run.
This was the skill set he brought with him to Morgantown just over a year ago. A skill set that many had hoped would be an instant catalyst in Jeff Casteel's recently migrated 3-3-5 stack defense.
It wasn't. Francis was largely a non-factor who became frustrated by Casteel's intricate system.
2011 has passed and with a legendary Orange Bowl win now canonized in Mountaineer lore, West Virginia is looking forward to brighter horizons in the Big 12.
Hopefully Francis is doing the same. This defense, going up against the likes of Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas State in 2012, will need him.
Gone are Bruce Irvin, Julian Miller, Keith Tandy and Najee Goode—staples of West Virginia's defensive unit over the past several years.
In their place are younger, greener faces who are not only being asked to start in 2012, but also anchor and validate a defensive unit that many predict will be painfully challenged by the bigger offensive talents lurking in Big 12 waters.
Often times, writers would insert the "it's his time to shine" figure of speech right about now, only with Francis its not in any sense figurative.
It's all literal.
See, 2011 would have been pivotal in establishing himself as the heir apparent to some of the aforementioned Mountaineers who are now gearing up for Sundays. As it stands, 2012 will double as both a grand entrance and a swan song for Francis.
So, literally it's Francis' time to shine.
The Mountaineers' secondary looks to be relatively solid as it returns Pat Miller, Darwin Cook and veteran leader Terrence Garvin. Across the line, things are a little shakier. Man-child Will Clarke will hold down one end position, opposite either J.B. Lageman or Trevor Demko, with a combination of Jorge Wright and Shaq Rowell at the nose position.
Then there's linebacker. The heart and soul of the Mountaineer's newly implemented hybrid 3-4/4-3 scheme.
Expect to see Doug Rigg, Tyler Anderson, Jared Barber and Jewone Snow getting a lot of action. Hope, but don't necessarily expect Josh Francis to be the vocal and physical leader of this unit.
I'm not doubting Francis' skills. If anything, it's his immense skill set that is giving me any reason to be hard on him at all.
It's a lot to ask of a player, especially one who is trying to turn the tables on a disappointing first year at the Division-1A level, to emerge from nowhere and become a defensive leader.
But Francis, being a senior, is a leader by default.
His talent. His experience. His stockpiled frustration from a year wasted.
It's time to weaponize all of those individual factors.
We've seen what can happen when a highly touted JUCO prospect puts his foot on the gas and finds his rhythm. We've seen it, and hopefully the Seahawks will get to see it this fall (hats off to you, Bruce).
They move the ball in the Big 12 and they do it very well. This Joe DeForest/Keith Patterson led defense will be going up against far different beasts than the tepid offenses that Casteel's defenses were used to seeing out of East Hartford and Piscataway.
Here's hoping that Josh Francis can rid the question mark from his name in 2012. He's too talented to not make and impact and this defense will need every ounce of impact that he can muster.
Hopefully in this new, simplified system, he can hone in on his abilities as a ball-hawk and do what he does best:
Throw the hit stick.
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