In the NFL Draft, it is hardly a rarity for next-level evaluators to revisit a prospect that toiled in the depths of anonymity after once experiencing college stardom. For one reason or another, these players are inclined to transfer, sometimes to a lower level of competition, only to eventually resurface as teams begin the evaluation process. Former Hampton University QB Deondre Francois, a prospect who found himself in the spotlight early in his career at Florida State, executed the improbable resurgence — one that has led him to the brink of realizing his NFL dream.
Deondre Francois, a natural-born athlete
Even as an eight-year-old playing little league, Deondre Francois had an appreciation for the competitive atmosphere often associated with the game of football.
The Francois siblings spent their early years growing up in Little Haiti, a neighborhood of Miami, but Janice Francois eventually moved her five children to Orlando, where Deondre would experience his first taste of the gridiron. Armed with the inherent ability to throw the ball further than most kids his age, Francois became a quarterback after his first Pop Warner tryout — and he didn’t look back.
Developing into a dynamic dual-threat signal-caller throughout his years of adolescent dominance, Francois continued his ascension at the high school level, attending Olympia High School in Orlando, Florida. In his sophomore and junior seasons combined, Francois passed for 3,162 yards, 29 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, before ultimately opting to transfer to IMG Academy for his senior season.
IMG Academy, a prestigious boarding school located in Bradenton, Florida, is a demanding school often reserved for the dedicated and determined.
“A lot of guys went there and couldn’t last,” Francois said. “I’ve seen a lot of guys come there, and, after two months, transfer back to their old high school. When I got there, I kind of just put my head down and got to work.”
Francois put together a strong senior campaign for the Ascenders, passing for 1,488 yards and 18 touchdowns.
While he began generating interest from Louisville, Clemson, and South Florida as a sophomore at Olympia, Francois found himself in high demand by the time he transferred to IMG. One of the more sought-after recruits in the nation, Francois eventually committed to Florida State the summer before his senior season.
“It felt good there,” Francois said. “But, it really came down to the atmosphere. In 2013, they’d just come off of a championship. There was a winning atmosphere there, and that’s what I wanted to be around. [Head coach] Jimbo Fisher’s coaching was on another level. I wanted to play for a coach that would be strict on me and put me in the right position to be successful.”
For the first time in his football career, Francois was forced to take a back seat.
Given the redshirt designation upon arriving in Tallahassee, Francois spent the 2015 season mastering the finer nuances of the quarterback position while adjusting to the speed of the collegiate game.
When quarterback Everett Golson’s career came to an end on the heels of a 10-3 season, Francois was expected to enter spring practices in competition with senior Sean Maguire for the starting job. Only, the competition never happened; Maguire suffered a fractured ankle in the Peach Bowl and required surgery.
Francois, now the odds-on favorite to emerge from fall camp as the starter, instantly struck up a rapport with his legendary head coach as he navigated his way to a starting role.
“[Jimbo] was a perfectionist, so that made me become a perfectionist, and that really took my game to another level,” Francois said. “I was a reflection of him, we were always together. He got on me all the time and really broke me down, but would build me back up. That made me mentally strong for the game.”
Under Fisher’s tutelage, Francois evolved into one of the top young signal-callers in the country in 2016, passing for 3,350 yards, 20 touchdowns, and seven interceptions on the season. The wunderkind redshirt freshman put together the fifth-highest single-season passing total in program history while being named four-time ACC Rookie of the Week, ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year, and ACC Rookie of the Year.
“We prepared every day,” Francois said. “Long days and long nights. We’d come in Sunday after the Saturday game and get right into the game plan for next week. Jimbo was strict on us about being ready for the next opponent and was also strict on our coaches. [The coaches] already had film and everything ready to go, so that for the next eleven weeks, we wouldn’t have a delayed process.”
Flying high after a narrow win over Michigan in the Orange Bowl, there was a newfound energy that began to build around the Florida State program. The Seminoles boasted what many around the country believed to be an ascending quarterback poised for college football stardom, to go along with an intriguing blend of surrounding talent to grow with.
After an offseason brimming with anticipation and optimism, however, it took exactly one game to alter the Seminoles’ 2017 outlook.
In the season opener against the Alabama, Francois tore his left patella tendon after being brought down awkwardly from behind. His redshirt sophomore campaign was effectively over.
The once-promising season quickly spiraled out of control, resulting in a 7-6 record, including a 3-5 conference record. While the task of replacing Francois’ arm talent and pocket presence was a near-impossible feat, perhaps an even bigger loss was his leadership in the huddle.
Attacking the offseason with a full head of steam, Francois not only had to overcome an extensive rehab process, but he was also tasked with staving off two challengers who had the advantage of spring practices. As if that weren’t enough of an uphill climb, Francois also had little time to process newly-hired head coach Willie Taggart’s playbook. Taggart, who came to Tallahassee from Oregon, replaced Jimbo Fisher to become Florida State’s third head coach since 1976.
Following months of persistence that succeeded an arduous rehab process, Francois reclaimed his spot atop Florida State’s depth chart, emerging from fall camp as the starter once again. The season didn’t go according to plan, however, as the adjustment to Taggart’s spread offense from Fisher’s pro-style offense proved to be a steep learning curve for the 2018 Seminoles.
Due to rumors of an off-field incident, Francois was dismissed from the program shortly after the season, and promptly began exploring other institutions to play out the 2019 season. Initially, it appeared that his opportunity would come at Florida Atlantic under Lane Kiffin. In fact, Francois was slated to become the Owls next quarterback, until their previous signal-caller was cleared of an issue late in the process and returned to the program.
Many of the schools that once pursued Francois had since moved on to their secondary options, leaving the 6-foot-2, 216-pound quarterback with one other alternative, with the dogs days of summer rapidly approaching: Hampton University.
Redemption at Hampton
“I got a chance to mature, to really be a coach on the field and off the field,” Francois said. “I got a chance to humble myself and really understand that no one is bigger than the game.”
A true student of the game, Francois spent the majority of his time at Hampton in the coach’s office, discussing football and the reasoning behind specific play calls.
The innate leadership that endeared Francois to teammates at Florida State had a noticeable impact early on, and, before long, his unparalleled work ethic soon radiated throughout the roster.
Each day, he reminded teammates to have fun with football and to love and appreciate the game.
Francois’ impact on the field was equally impressive, as he threw for 2,522 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in his lone season with the Pirates. Though Francois opted to forego his final year of college eligibility, electing to enter the 2020 NFL Draft, the unique opportunity to experience the Hula Bowl, a post-season invitational in Oahu, Hawaii, proved to be an unforgettable experience for the Florida native.
Francois’ commanding presence left an impression almost immediately, so much so, that Kai head coach Rex Ryan named him team captain.
“I previously met Rex Ryan at Florida State, when he was commentating one of our games,” Francois explained. “They did a draft, and Rex Ryan picked me number one overall. To be on his team, as the first player off the board in the Hula Bowl, I was really honored by that.”
Deondre Francois’ NFL outlook
Following the Hula Bowl, Francois was expected to have an eventful pre-draft circuit prior to the global pandemic that has put everything on hold, with workouts planned at the HBCU Combine in Miami, Hampton and Maryland’s Pro Day, as well as local Pro Days for the Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
When he isn’t preparing for his NFL future under the blazing Orlando sun, Francois has been a steady presence in the community, volunteering his time at the Ronald McDonald House, in addition to assisting various homeless shelters and meeting with middle school kids.
“I’ve always liked to give back to the community,” Francois said. “It started when I got hurt in 2017; I went around to almost every elementary and middle school in Tallahassee and did a tour for anti-bullying. When I came back home to Orlando now in 2020, I went to middle schools, just talking to the students and letting them know what I’ve been through, how sports helped me, to listen and respect their parents and teachers — all the small things that make a person who they are.
“With the Ronald McDonald House, I like doing things like that, because it helps me understand how blessed I am as an individual,” Francois said. “Seeing stuff like that helps me grind harder, and understand that somebody always has it worse than you.”
Though he has taken an unconventional path to the NFL Draft, his winding journey has allowed him to mature and develop as a man off the field. On the field, you simply won’t find a tougher quarterback in this draft class, as Francois has managed to withstand an astounding 83 sacks over his collegiate career.
Next-level decision-makers are likely to be captivated by Francois’ big arm, athleticism, and experience leading a pro-style offense at the highest level, but mining beneath the surface, they are likely to come away even more enamored with the humility and integrity he’s gained throughout his travels.
“I know what I’ve been through, and how far I’ve come, and I won’t let any opportunity slip away,” Francois vowed.