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Grand Island Senior High linebacker Caleb Francl is the honorary defensive captain of the 2019 All-Heartland football team. (Independent/Barrett Stinson)

“He doesn’t look like a linebacker.”

That phrase has been uttered more than once when it comes to Caleb Francl.

It’s not meant as an insult.

But if you see the 6-foot, 175-pound senior walking the hallways of Grand Island Senior High, you probably wouldn’t come to the conclusion that he’s a starting linebacker for a perennial Class A top 10 program.

But put on the pads and helmet on Francl, place him on the field on a Friday night and then there is no doubt.

He’s a linebacker, and a darned good one.

“Hands down the best outside linebacker and one of the top three all-around football players – offense, defense and special teams – that I have ever coached,” said Grand Island Senior High coach Jeff Tomlin, who has coached a bunch of good players, so that isn’t a compliment to be taken lightly.

Francl excelled once again during his senior season, leading the Islander with 30 solo tackles, 87 total tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss.

For his performance, Francl is the latest Grand Island Senior High standout to be named the Independent’s All-Heartland Super Squad honorary defensive captain.

“He’s so versatile,” Tomlin said. “He’s got excellent speed so he can cover a lot of ground. He makes great reads.

“He has a lot of linebacker intangibles and has a high football IQ.”

Francl kept up his production on the defensive side while taking on more of a workload at running back, where he led the Islanders with 694 yards on 112 carries with 12 touchdowns.

And he did all that while battling a badly sprained ankle early in the season.

“It’s definitely not easy to play running back and linebacker and getting hit every single play of the game,” Francl said. “But for me, the contact is part of the fun.”

Yes, Francl certainly never shies away from a hard hit. Is that love of contact something he’s always had or something he developed?

“I’ve loved it since fourth grade when I started playing football,” Francl said with a laugh.

While others may point out Francl’s size, to Tomlin it never was a factor.

“He plays so much bigger than what he is,” the coach said. “That’s what threw recruiters off. He’s not the 200, 205-pound linebacker that you expect for what he does. They are surprised that he’s 175, 180.

“South Dakota State got a great player. They saw things past his size.”

Francl is walking on to join the Jackrabbits, and he said it was a program that he felt was the perfect fit.

“South Dakota State pursued me a lot harder than anybody else,” he said. “They kept in contact a lot more, and I liked what I saw there. It felt a lot like Grand Island.”

Tomlin said Francl showed a lot of potential during his freshman and sophomore seasons. He bloomed as a two-year starter.

“He’s a sponge,” Tomlin said. “He is not going to make the same mistake twice. If you point something out to him in film, it’s going to be locked in.”

Francl’s abilities at outside linebacker gave the Islanders a lot of flexibility on defense.

“On one side, you pretty much rely on Caleb,” Tomlin said. “Even though he was often double-teamed, he was still able to set an edge. He’s got it taken care of. He can cover so much ground that it allows us to be flexible with a lot of other people.”

Francl said having a year of starting experience helped this fall.

“I had a greater knowledge of the game,” he said. “I learned how to contain the edge.”

Along with his greater responsibilities on offense came the expected role as a senior leader that is so important at Grand Island Senior High under Tomlin.

“There is a little more pressure (as a senior),” Francl said. “But Coach T throughout the offseason teaches us how to fill those leadership positions.”

In all aspects, Francl is one of those special players who will be greatly missed.

“He’s a leader and a great player,” Tomlin said. “He’s a genuinely incredible young man of honor and integrity. He exemplified our program’s core values.”

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