Likely Taking the Next Step

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Perhaps no Terp on last year's 7-5 bowl-bound squad garnered more praise than freshman cornerback/returner Will Likely. The diminutive 5-foot-7, 175-pounder was thrust into the regular rotation from Day One when starters J.J. Johnson and Dexter McDougle suffered season-long injuries, and the Belle Glade, Fla., native took full advantage of the opportunity.

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Perhaps no Terp on last year's 7-5 bowl-bound squad garnered more praise than freshman cornerback/returner Will Likely. The diminutive 5-foot-7, 175-pounder was thrust into the regular rotation from Day One when starters J.J. Johnson and Dexter McDougle suffered season-long injuries, and the Belle Glade, Fla., native took full advantage of the opportunity.

Displaying an evident chip-on-the-shoulder mentality stemming from his vertically challenged frame, as well as surprising toughness and a knack for finding the football, Likely quickly won over the staff and his peers. Head coach Randy Edsall suggested he'd like to have a team full of Likely's, while secondary mates like Johnson, Anthony Nixon and Sean Davis raved about his work ethic and attitude.

So, what did Likely think about all that?

"I don't know, I have the potential to be even better. I know I have more to offer, and there's things to work on," he said after the April 9 spring practice. "I'd probably grade my [2013 season] a ‘C.' You know, I made a few plays out there, but I made some mistakes too. So I'd say a ‘C.'"

Like many athletes who aspire to greatness, Likely dwells more on what needs to be done or what he failed to do than what he actually accomplished. The never-satisfied attitude is a driving force and a defining feature, giving him an edge since he lacks physical advantages.

But Likely did admit he made a few nifty plays last year, specifically the 63-yard punt return for a touchdown in the upset against Virginia Tech and his first career interception in the loss to Syracuse.

"I had the touchdown, I had the interception. That TD came in handy [against Tech]," Likely said. "But, you know, winning period was the high watermark for me. I just wanted to win."

Likely certainly made his share of winning plays, the punt return and pick being just two of them.

Appearing in all 13 games, the true freshman recorded 70 tackles and a team-high seven pass breakups, to go along with a 26.04 kick return average and a 12.81 punt return average. Likely ended up ranked third in the ACC in both kick and punt returns, while his 179 all-purpose yards and touchdown against Virginia Tech earned him co-ACC Rookie of the Week honors. At the team's end-of-year banquet, Likely was named Maryland's special teams player of the year.

But while his special teams contributions were valuable, it was his defensive prowess that resonated. Despite his youth and inexperience, Likely's confidence and refusal to back down, even against elite receivers from Clemson and Florida State, opened eyes around the conference.

"I was ready to go when my name was called. [Playing cornerback in Brian Stewart's defense] really wasn't as difficult an adjustment for me, because I came in [to Maryland] early in the spring after graduating early," Likely said. "And I had a few older guys who helped me out, so it really wasn't that hard for me. I just went out and played the way I knew how."

Of course, Likely did have a couple coverage breakdowns that led to big gainers, while his two muffed punts stuck in his craw.

Naturally, the Florida native harped on his miscues, namely the fumbles.

"[Returning punts in college] was an adjustment for me. You have better kickers, better punters and they get the ball higher in the air and have better hangtime," Likely said. "So you have to keep your eyes focused all the way through [the kick] and make sure you don't look away early. It takes a second to get used to it.

"I come out here [to practice] every day and just catch punt after punt. I'm working on getting it down."

Likely still has some kinks to work out in the return game, but to the watchful eye he's looked impressive at corner. Playing opposite Johnson, and alongside third cornerback Alvin Hill, Likely has recorded numerous pass breakups and had an interception return during the Terps' March 28 scrimmage at North Point High.

"[Picking up the defense] is easier now, because I know exactly what I'm in [scheme wise], so I can play even faster," Likely said. "I'm able to do things now and pick up things that aren't always coachable.

"But I'm just working to get better. I'm working on my technique, my footwork and my press-man coverage. The coaches are saying I'm a quick player, but I have to be more of a technician."

Indeed, Edsall, Stewart and Co. have high expectations for Likely, and they're pushing him to take his game to new heights. Edsall has stressed improved fundamentals, mainly because he knows Likely has little room for error given his height and the competition he'll be up against in the Big Ten.

"The big thing with [Likely] is, [though] he has a tremendous amount of confidence, we have to get him to understand that he always has to play within himself. He's a guy who is limited because he really doesn't have that height, so he really has to make sure he's doing the things he's supposed to with technique and fundamentals and not try to … do some things that can take away from the way he can play the game," Edsall said. "That's one of the things we've tried to reiterate to him. ‘Hey, you do a lot of great things, but now you just have to focus on the fundamentals and techniques because you don't have the long arms.'

"He has to understand who he can jam, who he can't jam, those sort of things. … He's working hard and doing all the things there, but we're trying to take him [up a notch]."

Besides taking in the coaching tips, Likely said he's spent extra time in the film room to identify any errors he's made. In addition, he and Alvin Hill have worked together on weekends, going through footwork drills and the like.

"Me and Alvin, we push each other. He's a great guy to work with," Likely said. "And really the whole [secondary], we're a family. I'm close with all those guys. We all have each other's backs and everyone is getting better. You can see it on film, everyone is making strides."

That they are – especially Hill. While Likely figures to be the No. 2 corner, Hill has made a bid for significant time this spring. On the special teams side of things, meanwhile, Likely will be competing with Stefon Diggs and Taivon Jacobs for kick and punt return duties.

"Honestly, none of us knows [the depth chart] right now," Likely said. "But everyone here has the mentality where when our name gets called we go out and compete -- no matter who's starting or where we're playing. We all want to perform."

His teammates may be stepping up, but Likely figures to get an even stiffer test this summer. When he returns home to the area known as The Muck, Likely will be training with a couple pro receivers who should prepare him well for elite competition.

"This summer it's football, football, football. I work with NFL guys like Deonte Thompson and Travis Benjamin, and that most definitely helps because they're receivers and can help me on my DB techniques and what I have to do to stay with guys like that," Likely said. "They're speed guys, so you really have to be quick on your feet and with your hands."

If all goes well, Likely should return to College Park in late summer ready to rock the Big Ten. Not that he's concerned with personal performance.

"I'm just trying to get this Big Ten championship," Likely said. "I'm just trying to win. That's it."

No wonder Edsall wants 100 Will Likelys.

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