Likely Fills a Void

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- When Dexter McDougle and J.J. Johnson went down, freshman Will Likely stepped in to fill the void at cornerback. And now he's about to play in his first bowl game.

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Will Likely walked into the Terps' media presser last week with an Oakland Raiders winter knit hat and brown snow boots with white tassels.

And no, the Florida native, who saw snow for the first time last year on his UMD official campus visit, didn't pick them up in the wake of this week's snowstorm that closed school last Tuesday.

"Oh no, I was wearing these in the summertime. That's the fashion," joked the Belle Glade, Fla., native of his winter style. "Back home we wear them like for fashion, and they'll be like, ‘It's 80 degrees outside, why you got on a beanie?'"

Likely has been quite in fashion these days, the upstart freshman corner grabbing the starting job when the Terps lost both their starters early this season, not to mention shining on special teams to the tune of helping Maryland win two of its final three games to become bowl eligible.

No Maryland season-in-review could preclude Likely as, well, he's likely the Terps' rookie of the year.

On the season, the 5-foot-7, 175-pound mighty-mite ranked fifth on the team in tackles (62), while he led the Terps with five pass breakups. He also chipped in one interception. Meanwhile, he ranked second only to Stefon Diggs in all-purpose yardage with 854 yards in 12 games, good for a 71.2 yards-per-game average.

He led the Terps in kick returns with 24 for 649 yards (27.0 yard average), with a long of 51, while he also rated first in punt returns with 16 for 205 (16.8), with a long of 63 and one score. That score came at Virginia Tech, which helped open the game up and carry the Terps into bowl eligibility, and was his first career touchdown. His 55-yard kick return at N.C. State helped spark that win, helping Maryland to victory No. 7 and officially assuring the Terps of their first postseason trip in three years.

"I wish I had 100 of them like that," head coach Randy Edsall said of Likely a couple weeks back. "He's a tremendous young man and has made a big impact on this team, not only from what he's done on the field but how hard he prepares and he works at it."

Likely, along with senior Isaac Goins, had to fill the biggest voids on the team when starters Dexter McDougle and J.J. Johnson were lost early in the season. McDougle went down for the year and Johnson for most of it before returning for two plays at NCSU in the finale.

"Will, he's exactly what I thought he'd be from the beginning of the season," Johnson said. "With me and Dex going down, it gave him an opportunity to really show what he could do, and he took advantage of it."

Likely responded to his sudden ascension with 11 tackles, a 27-yard punt return and a 43-yard kick return versus ODU in Week 2. He then had a team-high eight tackles in the loss at Wake, while he had his first pick against Syracuse in Week 9. Likely earned co-ACC Rookie of the Week honors after his Virginia Tech performance, which also included 179 all-purpose yards and four tackles.

"Will's a guy, from the very first day when he came in here, you could see he had something special about him, just in terms of how he went about his business and how he was doing everything," Edsall said in an earlier press conference. "The competitiveness of Will… the thing I like about Will, Will understands that he's not the tallest guy in the world, and I think he plays with a chip on his shoulder, and he competes his butt off each and every day. He's a smart football player, he works extremely hard at getting better. Never satisfied. Tough guy. I could talk all day about him."

When Likely committed last year just before Christmas Eve, this is how he envisioned his UM career, though he could hardly have known he would be thrown into the mix so soon. Special teams and some nickel package work were mostly the expectations heading in.

But for all Likely accomplished he still sees plenty of room for improvement, from his cover skills to learning the playbook to his technique. He had some big plays, but also had two muffed punts and got beat a few times deep, including at N.C. State l. But he also filled a huge breach at a position the Terps didn't have a ton of depth at to begin with.

"At the beginning of the year I had a few muffs that I should have took advantage of," said Likely, who wasn't aware he received ACC All-Freshman votes. "On defense, I could have made more plays on the ball than I did. It all comes down to what the coaches keep telling me, to just get better, and that's what I am working towards."

In the return game, Likely believes he should have brought one back all the way against NCSU, despite his 55 yarder to set up a Terps score. He's never been totally satisfied with his game.

"The greatest part about that is you just got to keep striving, and it lets you know that you are not done yet," he said.

Likely drew a crowd at the press event last week, as he looked back at his rookie campaign and ahead to the Military Bowl against Marshall on Dec. 27 in Annapolis, Md.

"I am excited. This is my first bowl, and I am excited to play against Marshall," Likely said. "I have former teammates that were on my same team, and they play receiver, so you know it is going to be fun going up against those guys."

Likely knows Marshall has an explosive offense and throws the ball around, "and we're just planning on going out and having some fun. They like to throw the ball, which is good for the DBs and secondary."

He said his former high school teammates, the Thundering Herd's Demetrius Evans (5-11, 198) and Davonte Allen (6-2, 203), "are physical and have speed and are good at high pointing the ball." They had yet to speak since the bowls were announced, but Likely said they will soon.

Likely said his parents and other family will be coming up for the bowl game later this month. They made the Terps-FSU game in Tallahassee, Fla., and a few home games at Byrd Stadium, including the Boston College heartbreaker.

Likely said it will be tough spending Christmas at the team hotel in D.C., but it's worth the sacrifice. Plus he's excited the team may get to take in a Wizards game and how each player will receive a Play Station 4.

But while snowy Maryland had been fun, "you never get used to [the weather] being from Florida." He hasn't been home yet this year.

Likely isn't quibbling, though. After all, he's a football player and a student of the game, something he has always prided himself on.

"My main key was just reading, being able to read plays and read receiver splits and things like that -- and study film and being able to anticipate what the receivers are going to do," Likely said. "I feel this offseason I have to work on being a better man-to-man cornerback, and playing better defense in nickel back.

"I did a good job, but at the end of the day you go back and watch film that you can nitpick on to get better. That is my focus, that is what I do."

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