Jamal Francois knew taking the hits would be the hardest part of being Bladensburg's starting varsity quarterback as a 135-pound freshman. He just wasn't sure when the first bell-ringer would come.

Francois' first start, against Potomac in the second game of the season, had been almost too easy. On his first play, he threw a 70-yard touchdown pass to tailback Derrick Thornton.

The reality of playing against bigger players at the varsity level caught up with him in the third quarter when the Braves' outside linebacker nailed him on an option play.

But Francois released the pitch to tailback Shaun Marshall, who ran 42 yards for the go-ahead touchdown in Bladensburg's 26-13 victory.

"That was probably the hardest hit" he has ever taken, said the 5-foot-7 Francois. "He picked me up and drove me into the ground."

Francois popped up from that play and Bladensburg Coach Pat Murphy has not worried about his being able to take the punishment since. "When he got up from that hit, I knew he was ready to play varsity football," said Murphy. "After looking at the films, I still can't believe he got up."

Since Lamont Stafford suffered a hip injury in the Mustangs' opening win over Parkdale, Bladensburg (5-1) has won four of five games with 14-year-old Francois running the offense. The only setback of the season came in the third game, a 20-14 overtime loss to DuVal.

Saturday, the Mustangs play at No. 15 Laurel (6-0) in a crucial Prince George's County 3A/2A showdown.

Bladensburg, bidding for its first appearance in the state playoffs, prides itself on senior leadership. Yet many players, as well as Murphy, agree Francois has emerged as a leader.

Behind a veteran line that weighs about 100 pounds more per player than he does, Francois has completed 19 of 43 pases for 213 yards and four touchdowns.

He is perhaps most impressive in the way he has taken charge of the team and performed under pressure. That includes making the big plays on the field, and taking care of the little things the quarterback should look after, most of which he learned in five years of youth football.

With the score 14-14 with just under one minute to play against Douglass, Bladensburg got the ball and a final chance to score. Francois directed the winning drive using a no-huddle offense. He hit Marshall in the end zone from 25 yards with about 30 seconds left to give Bladensburg a 20-14 victory.

He does more.

"If somebody is lined up wrong, he will tell him to move back," said 6-5, 240-pound offensive tackle Trent Bass. "He checks to make sure everything is okay. He gives me a lot of confidence. He tells me to stay low when I block. If he didn't tell me, I don't know if I would always remember to do it."

Murphy recalled an incident last week in the Mustangs' 2-0 victory over Forestville when senior fullback Charles Smith was having trouble with his chin strap as the offensive unit was lining up for a play. Francois calmly walked over to adjust the chin strap and then ran the play.

"A lot of quarterbacks wouldn't worry about that," Murphy said. "What we like about Jamal best is his leadership. His mind is always in the game. He knows how to read the entire field."

Francois has certainly come a long way since leading the junior varsity to victory in the first week of the season. Murphy, who had never played a freshman in his five years at Bladensburg, says Francois wasn't on the varsity depth chart when the season began.

But when Murphy learned Stafford's hip injury would sideline the junior for at least two weeks, he was faced with a decision.

"I usually don't think about playing a freshman anywhere on the field, much less at quarterback," he said. "But I decided that we were going to take a chance and practice with him."

"I was ready to play. I wasn't scared," Francois said. "They {teammates} wanted me in there. When Lamont got injured in the first game, they wanted me to go in."

After two days of workouts, Murphy saw the confidence building in Francois and realized he had the mental ability to play quarterback. But the coach still wasn't convinced he was physically ready.

As it turned out, Murphy might have been the most skeptical.

"I knew that he could do it," said Marshall. "The whole team had confidence in him."