FOXBORO -- All he has to do is stand at his locker and look his left to realize just how far he's come. When Justin Francis does that and sees the nameplate of his childhood idol Vince Wilfork a few feet away, he shakes his head in disbelief.
"I was a big University of Miami fan back in the day," said Francis, who grew up in Opa-locka, Fla. "I watched Vince coming up as a kid, and I didn't play football but I just looked at him saying, 'I want to be like him.' I actually got goosebumps just thinking about it because I'm here sharing this with him. I feel like it's my duty to just stay on top of my job and get it done so that he can enjoy his job as well."
As this season has progressed, Francis, an undrafted rookie defensive lineman out of Rutgers University, has had more opportunities to do his job for the Patriots during meaningful moments of important games.
In New England's 41-34 loss to the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday, Francis played nearly one third of the team's defensive snaps. He registered four tackles, and he was around the ball during a 49ers fumbled center-to-quarterback exchange in the first quarter.
Francis credits his teammates on the defensive line, and Wilfork especially, for preparing him to make an impact.
"Our main guy is Vince," Francis said. "He's definitely the guy that we look up to and the guy that we go to when things aren't looking too good, or when we need a question answered. I try to pick his brain as much as I can. He's a great player. It's a blessing that I'm in the same room as him."
Wilfork has been seen walking around the Patriots facilities lately wearing a t-shirt that reads: "Do your job. Mine is taken care of."
Francis knows that as a rookie reserve, a big part of his job, essentially, is to learn -- learn his position, learn his role in the Patriots defense, learn how to be a professional. According to Patriots coach Bill Belichick, he has that taken care of.
"Hes a competitive player, he works hard," Belichick said on Wednesday. "Hes got some good ability and hes -- like any young player -- hes learning through sometimes trial and error. Sometimes experience. Sometimes the hard way. But he works hard to get better and I have a lot of respect for that. There arent many people that work harder than he does. He competes every day in practice, both in the classroom and out on the field to learn and improve and hes definitely improved a lot, no question."
That's the story of his young football career. Francis started at a disadvantage compared to many of his peers when he didn't play consistently until his senior year of high school. Then with little more than a year of organized football under his belt, he was offered a scholarship by Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano.
Though Schiano -- a friend of Belichick's -- called Francis "one of the toughest kids he's ever been around," Francis went undrafted. Signed and brought to Patriots training camp this summer, Francis stood out almost immediately with his quickness and the way the motor inside his 6-foot-2, 268-pound frame hummed relentlessly.
Francis has had to transition from a three-technique defensive lineman (meaning he lined up between the offensive guard and tackle) in college to more of an end in New England's 4-3 scheme, and he's done it relatively quickly, gaining the trust of the Patriots coaching staff along the way.
It took some time, though, before he finally saw the field. His first action didn't come until Week 6 as a member of the punt coverage unit.
While he waited, Wilfork's advice helped him get by.
"Of course, for a person that works hard, you want to see yourself out there," Francis said. "But in due time . . . guys like Vince explained that to me. 'You're time's coming. You're time's coming. It's gonna come.' "
Now that it's here, Francis hopes his voracious appetite for football will help keep him in the rotation.
"Watching film, coming in, spending extra time in the building," he said, ticking off some of the good habits he's developed in his first season. "Even off the field, just constantly thinking about what my job is, thinking about football, watching games that I recorded at home that we played just to run through those clips, just to keep stuff fresh in my mind."
Francis has been solid enough that Belichick was asked if he may have an edge on teammate Jermaine Cunningham for playing time when Cunningham returns from his four-game suspension after Sunday's matchup with the Jaguars.
Belichick didn't say what would happen when Cunningham returns, but Francis knows he's made an impression. He's seen his playing time rise, and he heard the nice things Belichick said about him in the coach's mid-week press conference.
"I thank him for it, and I appreciate it, but I just take that and use it kind of as fuel," Francis said. "I take that and keep it in my back pocket and just keep on working."
And if he ever needs a little extra motivation -- to be reminded how far he's come, and realize how much room there is for him to improve -- he can find it when he glances from his locker over to his idol's just a few feet away.