Marquice Cole excels at backing people up
FOXBOROUGH – It is the most memorable defensive play of the season for the Patriots, a display of trust between friends, great on-field awareness, and tremendous athleticism and body control.
The “tip drill” sideline interception that ended up in Marquice Cole’s hands after Devin McCourty tapped it to him as McCourty was falling out of bounds against the Dolphins was a highlight-reel play, the kind that only seem possible in the heavily-pixilated world of a Madden video game.
McCourty has been a starter for New England since Day 1, a first-round pick who began as a cornerback and is now one of the best safeties in the NFL. But Cole has always been a backup, spending his first two seasons as a practice squad player, the most tenuous job in a league where few players are guaranteed anything.
Cole was signed before the 2012 season after spending three seasons and 37 games with the Jets, mostly as a special-teamer. The Northwestern product had been on practice squad of the Raiders, Titans, and Saints in 2007 and ’08.
In his time with the Jets, Cole had played fewer than 200 snaps on defense, though he did get one start in 2010, the season finale against the Bills, and he collected two interceptions.
His arrival in New England was met with little fanfare, especially with the team bringing in higher-profile free agents Jonathan Fanene, Steve Gregory, and Brandon Lloyd.
But Cole not only stuck around, his role expanded. He played more snaps at corner last season than he did in his three years with New York, starting against the Jaguars and thrust into duty for 33 snaps in the AFC Championship game when Aqib Talib’s day was cut short by injury.
Like other Patriots before him, excelling on special teams led to Cole getting reps with the defense.
“It starts with being on the field in the kicking game, then it comes with opportunity to play defensively,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “Then performing well in those opportunities, that leads to more opportunities and it all starts back with the kicking game. That’s not an uncommon path for a player like him to be on, like Rob Ninkovich or BenJarvus [Green-Ellis] when he was here. We’ve had a lot of guys that that’s been their path.”
This season has not been without its down moments, as the Patriots released and re-signed Cole in consecutive weeks when a hamstring injury would have kept him out of the Falcons and Bengals games.
It wasn’t easy bouncing back and forth, but he’s dealt with the realities of NFL life long enough to know how things go.
“I feel like if I was able to play, I would have been here. But when I wasn’t able to play, then I’m released. So whenever I was back able to play, then I would be back,” he said. “The NFL — adapt or die, that’s how I look at it. So if you can’t do it, then you just can’t do it. But I feel like I’m a person who was able to go with the flow, basically. It’s tough but it’s part of the game.”
He got healthy at a good time. When Kyle Arrington struggled against the Jets’ Jeremy Kerley last month, Cole replaced Arrington. He played about half the game against the Dolphins and also saw a fair number of plays against the Steelers.
“He’s an experienced player,” Belichick said. “He has good experience both outside, inside and actually even at safety as well. He’s smart, a real versatile player that has good speed, good toughness for his size. He’s not the biggest guy, but he plays with good playing strength and toughness, runs well.
“He understands all the different positions, the components of them and how to utilize his help because he understands where it’s coming from, based on his experience.”
Many a defensive back will tell you that practice is vital to refine footwork and technique, and any time away can lead to some rust.
But most of the time, Belichick noted, Cole has had to play cornerback in a game without the benefit of practice snaps, and he’s responded to the challenge.
“He learns quickly and he’s a pretty instinctive player. Just a lot of times we’ve thrown him in there the last couple years without maybe a lot of practice reps, somebody has gotten hurt during a game or whatever, and he goes in there and has just done a good job,” Belichick said. “I think he’s a valuable guy to have; he’s helped us out a lot.”
Being in meetings and film study with his fellow defensive backs means Cole isn’t entirely ignorant to the tendencies of upcoming offenses and players, though he said it does make things tougher “not going out and being able to see the routes in person and get your timing down.”
He talks often with teammates, leaning on McCourty in particular because “he knows every position.”
In a relatively short amount of time, Cole and McCourty have become close friends, though Cole points out that as a group, the defensive backs often are tight-knit.
An unabashed fan of “SpongeBob SquarePants” — a quote from the goofy yellow character is on his Twitter page — Cole has been taking a ribbing from the group this week; they insist that since he turned 30 Wednesday, he’s too old for cartoons.
He proudly says that while he’s an elder statesman, he’s also the biggest kid in the bunch, though he freely gives advice to younger teammates whenever they seek it, on any topic.
“I’ve had a lot of fun here. Even with the transactions earlier in the year, it is what it is,” Cole said. “I still wouldn’t trade it for anything.”