It sounded like hyperbole. After Saturday's scrimmage, James Madison football coach Mickey Matthews said that free safety Dean Marlowe had returned an interception for a touchdown in nearly every practice the Dukes have had this spring.
This week, Marlowe confirmed, albeit modestly, that it was no exaggeration.
"He's been pretty accurate," Marlowe said with a bashful laugh. "But I feel like I've been improving every practice with a lot of help from my coach [safeties coach Tony LeZotte]. He's been telling me the right things to do, and I've just been capitalizing off of that."
Marlowe, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound rising sophomore with the narrow, speed-built body of a greyhound, is coming off a breakout 2011 season in which he led JMU with four interceptions (the Dukes had 14 as a team). It tied him for seventh in the Colonial Athletic Association with Maine's Darlos James, helping Marlowe become a third-team All-CAA pick.
The Queens, N.Y., native had 71 tackles (44 solo), fourth-best for the Dukes last year. Of Madison's returners, he had the second-most tackles behind linebacker Stephon Robertson. Robertson, a rising junior, led JMU with 113.
Now, Marlowe appears on the verge of making a leap in 2012, based on his sudden knack for running back picks. He didn't return an interception for a touchdown last season.
"I think, when you start doing that, it gets to be a habit," Matthews said. "
We always say, 'It takes guts to intercept a pass.' You've got to be confident and you've got to believe in yourself that you can do it, and I think anyone will tell you, in football, the more you start doing it, the more you believe you can do it - and Dean certainly is of that makeup. He thinks he can do it, and I'm sure he'll have a lot in his career. He has a lot of interceptions in his future."
The sure-handed Marlowe - a former, 165-pound high school quarterback who has put on about 10 pounds since playing at 180 last season - was optimistic but less sure than Matthews.
"I'm a real modest person and I don't like celebrating all the good things, telling everybody what I do," he said. "Hopefully, what I'm doing now in the spring will triple in the season, so hopefully - I guess it's leading up to a successful season for me."
When asked, Marlowe couldn't say how he it did it, making the interception-into-touchdown process sound more like art than something learned through a drill or in a meeting room.
"I guess, it's just being in the right place at the right time and doing your assignment, and it just happens. I can't even describe it," Marlowe said. "I don't know how it looks from off the field, but from being on the field, I just feel like you do your assignment, you're in the right place at the right time, it just happens."
Matthews echoed the instincts part.
"He has a ton of athletic ability," he said. "He has a great change-of-direction.
He has a burst, and I think, any time you play safety, it just takes experience where you have to develop anticipation and reading the quarterback's eyes."
But there is a teachable part.
Matthews equated returning interceptions for touchdowns to returning punts. He also said the coaching staff teaches what is colloquially known as the "pick-6." The key, Matthews said, is to get to the closest sideline because "all the offense is in the middle of the field."
Matthews also said that Marlowe had returned punts and kicks in practice (Marlowe had four punt returns for 34 yards with a long of 14 and no touchdowns last season) and that he again will be a punt-return option in 2012. Dae'Quan Scott handled the majority of the punt returns in 2011.
While the Spring of the Pick-6 may portend a Season of the Pick-6, Marlowe potentially has one more thing in his favor. LeZotte, a former Division I-AA All-American JMU free safety, once returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown.
LeZotte said Marlowe's standout spring is more a result of experience and work than art.
"He's more comfortable in what we're doing defensively," said LeZotte, entering his first season as the Dukes' safeties coach. "Having another spring underneath his belt, he's gotten better with reading routes and knowing what the offense is trying to do to you.
He's having to think less and react more."
Fans will get a look at Marlowe in the annual spring game, scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Bridgeforth Stadium.
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