FOXBOROUGH — When told that Bill Belichick gave a glowing assessment of his progress this year, Justin Francis tried to play it cool.
But the corners of his mouth turned up just slightly, his eyes softened, and for a moment his true reaction was written all over his face.
The rookie defensive lineman, who played at Rutgers and is a friend of Belichick’s son Stephen, is yet another in a long line of Patriots players who made a strong enough impression to earn a roster spot, even after going undrafted.
Though he was inactive the first four weeks of the season and then didn’t get on the field in Week 5, the first time he was in uniform, Francis has played in eight of the last nine games. Against the 49ers last Sunday night, he made four tackles — a lot of production for someone who played 21 snaps.
Asked Wednesday about Francis’s development, Belichick said he has “absolutely” improved.
“He’s a competitive player, he works hard. He’s got some good ability and he’s — like any young player — he’s learning through sometimes trial and error,” Belichick said. “Sometimes experience, sometimes the hard way. But he works hard to get better and I have a lot of respect for that. There aren’t 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 he’s definitely improved a lot, no question.”
A Miami-area native, Francis appreciated Belichick’s praise but knows he has a lot of work left to do.
“It means a lot . . . Just to hear some positive feedback or acknowledgment of me doing something little, that’s a great feeling,” he said. “It’s like putting gas in the car [to keep moving forward]. I’ve just got to keep working.
“I’m not too much for the accolades. I just want to make sure I’m just doing what I’ve got to do to make sure Vince [Wilfork] can enjoy his job, so Kyle Love can enjoy his job, and Rob Ninkovich, Chan [Chandler Jones], my D-line can enjoy what they’re doing. I don’t want to mess it up. So I need to just stay on top of my job, do what I have to get done.”
Belichick noted that the Patriots’ scheme is different than the one Francis played with the Scarlet Knights, and Francis acknowledged that things were simplified in college.
In Foxborough, things are far more complex.
“You have to know the ins and outs to everything, what the linebacker’s going to call, what the D-line’s going to call. You just have to be on top of your game,” Francis said.
Pointing to the top of his head, he added, “spending a lot of time with Vince and spending a lot of time with my position coach [Patrick Graham], I just was able to just stick it in here and just keep it in here.”
Francis has developed a routine that has him at Gillette Stadium for at least 12 hours a day: He arrives at 6 a.m., has breakfast, and watches film with his headphones providing musical accompaniment. After practice he watches more film, spends time in the hot tub and cold tub to maintain his body, and “on a good day” he’s out of the facility by 6 p.m.
But at home he continues learning his plays. Video games beckon, as they do for many other 23-year-olds, but he keeps them to the side.
“It’s all about time, you have to sacrifice time in order to learn something that you need to learn,” he said.
“I just feel like I have to keep working, I’ve got to get better, can’t be complacent. My dad and mom, they said complacency is not where you want to be. You can’t be complacent, so I just keep doing what I’ve been doing.”
Though Francis tried to suppress a smile upon hearing Belichick’s words about him, his smile couldn’t be wider when talking about his 18-month-old daughter, Jordyn.
He notes that she is tall for her age, and he can’t wait to introduce her to sports.
Just as his little girl is learning day by day, her father looks to do the same.
“I just pray every day that I take steps day by day. Big gains are good, but I can gain step by step. I can do day-by-day gains and I feel like that’s going to help me in the long run,” Francis said.
“I haven’t done anything yet. I’m not perfect, I mess up, but I’m still learning. I’m not going to shy away from being a young guy, I’m not going to shy away from working hard, that’s the only way you can be successful . . . It’s still a learning experience, I’m still growing, and I’m still going to keep working and still do whatever I have to do in order to help the team win.”Shalise Manza Young can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.