Francis mentored by childhood idol Wilfork

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Francis mentored by childhood idol Wilfork

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.

Quirky Super Bowl schedule this time around for Patriots

Quirky Super Bowl schedule this time around for Patriots

The Patriots schedule for the next few days in Massachusetts and Super Bowl Week in Houston is a little quirky.

Players are off on Tuesday (media has conference call access to Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia). There’s no media access on Wednesday at all as the team begins getting introduced to the Super Bowl game plan that will have been partially formulated (and subject to tweaking). The players are in Thursday, Friday and Saturday for afternoon practices and there’s media access to the players each day. There’s no media access on Sunday.

The team will fly to Houston on Monday and – in a major departure – will do its media duties at night. The NFL has repackaged media day as Super Bowl Opening Night. It will be held at Minute Maid Field (home of the Astros) with access to the Patriots from 10 to 11 p.m. EST.

Tuesday, there will be access from 1:30 to 2:30 EST to Belichick and a handful of players at the Patriots’ hotel. There will be full access to players and coaches on Wednesday and Thursday from 5 to 6:15 EST.

There’s no NFL-sponsored access of any kind on Friday or Saturday. Previously, there was a final press conference with the head coaches and a press conference with the NFL Commissioner. His name is Roger. Roger Goodell.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame committee meets on Saturday and will announce the 2017 inductees by the end of the day.

For those of you who like television - or who stream on your tiny devices – we’ll be all over this mess.

This week, look for Patriots Wednesday Live on Thursday at noon (hard to have Wednesday Live if ain’t nobody gonna be live from the team).

Mike Giardi and I will be down there Sunday so start looking for live reports and my giant nose in the great state of Texas at that point.

If we’re not live during media day in the evening, I don’t know what we’re doing with our lives. Quick Slants will be Tuesday night and Jerod Mayo will be down there.

Lotta podding planned. Lotta podding.

We’ll keep you updated.

Celtics-Wizards preview: Making of a matchup

Celtics-Wizards preview: Making of a matchup

BOSTON -- While it’s debatable whether the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards are rivals, there’s no question there has been a heightened level of animosity towards one another when they play.

When these two met on Jan. 11, the Celtics came away with a 117-108 win.

But the game itself featured plenty of back-and-forth trash talk, finger-pointing, cries of dirty play and NBA fines.

IN FACT . . . Washington plans to bury Boston

“It’ll be a physical game,” said Jae Crowder who was hit with a five-figure fine for his role in a post-game incident involving Washington’s John Wall. “We have to answer the bell; we’ll be ready.”

Crowder knows he and his teammates must balance being the more physical team, with not losing their cool because if tonight’s game is anything like previous ones, there will be trash talk … lots of trash talk.

“They talk a little bit more than other teams,” said Crowder who added that was a factor in the incident him and Wall which cost them $25,000 and $15,000, respectively.

Crowder said a flagrant-foul committed by Washington’s Bradley Beal against Marcus Smart was what really cranked the level of animosity that was already at a high level.

But Beal probably hasn’t fully put behind him an incident last season in which Smart broke his nose and put him in the league’s concussion protocol program on a Smart drive to the basket.

As far as the hard foul that Beal delivered to him earlier this month, Smart said, “you take exception to every hard foul.”

Smart added, “It’s the game of basketball. You play with your emotions and intensity and everything like that. It comes with the game.”

While Crowder understands the Celtics have to play a physical brand of basketball, he’s not looking to do anything that might result in him having to cut another $25,000 check which was the amount of his fine from the Jan. 11 game against the Wizards.

“I’m looking at it as another game we have to win,” Crowder said. “I’m not looking at it as a rivalry or anything like that. I’m not coming in talking; they might.”

For the Wizards, winners in four of their five games since losing to Boston, a major key to their success lies in the play of their backcourt.

John Wall and Bradley Beal are the latest high-scoring backcourt tandem that the Celtics have to be worried about.

And making matters worse for Boston, the Celtics will have to try and make due without Avery Bradley who is still dealing with a right Achilles injury.

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said the 6-foot-2 Bradley was not going to be with the team in Washington and would most likely be out all this week.

That means Boston will lean heavily on Smart to not only help the offense run relatively smooth, but also provide some much-needed defense to help limit Wall and Beal who collectively rank among the higher-scoring starting backcourts in the NBA.

“We have to slow them down; by any means we have to slow them down,” Thomas said. “We know they go as far as those two take them. It’s going to be a tough game. They have a lot of momentum at home. It’ll be a tough game for us. But we’re ready for the opportunity.”

Wall and Beal are just the latest in a string of high-scoring backcourts that the Celtics have had to contend with recently.

In Saturday’s 127-123 overtime home loss to Portland, C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard combined to score 63 points on 20-for-42 shooting from the field.

“This stretch of backcourts is exceptionally difficult,” Stevens said. “They (Wall and Beal) both should be and certainly are in the discussion for the all-star team. It’s a real difficult challenge. Our guys are going to have to be really good on both ends of the floor.”