COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- A forced fumble to start; a pick and possibly two in-between; sandwiched by a textbook breakup; and topped off with a special teams score.
Have a day Will Likely.
The 5-foot-7, 175-pound Maryland cornerback has been a consistent playmaker since arriving in College Park from Glades Central High (Belle Glade, Fla.) last year, but on Sept. 13 he racked up a half-season’s worth of highlights in a 60-minute span. The Terps may have lost, 40-37, to rival West Virginia, but Likely’s effort did not go unrecognized.
“I’m surprised none of you asked me about Will Likely,” head coach Randy Edsall said after the game Sept. 13. “With the interception and the punt return… We just came up a little short today.”
Likely has long been an Edsall favorite, as much for his developing lockdown cornerback abilities and punt return prowess as he is for his off-field dedication. The diminutive corner/return man has said time and again that to succeed at football’s highest levels, he has to out-work, out-hustle and out-think his counterparts with more pure athleticism and size.
It’s what made him one of talent-rich Florida’s elite prospects coming out of Glades Central (Belle Glade, Fla.) two years ago, and it’s why Edsall and defensive coordinator Brian Stewart highly coveted his services. While institutions such as LSU and Florida State were scared off by Likely’s size, the Maryland staff looked past it and saw a fierce competitor with a blue-collar work ethic who absolutely refused to let height deter his development.
Likely certainly made the Terps’ evaluators look smart last fall when he started as a true freshman and recorded a team-high seven pass breakups in addition to earning UMD special teams player of the year honors. And through two games this season Likely’s taken yet another step, his play noticeably faster, his footwork more precise, his coverage tighter, his awareness increased.
“I don’t want to understate it, but it doesn’t surprised me he’s playing at such at high level because of how he prepares and works,” Edsall said. “That’s the difference. You guys don’t get to see it, but when you take a guy like Will … the amount of time and effort he puts into it in terms of studying film, in terms of going out to the practice field and working hard each and every snap …
“The other thing is he has a lot of pride. That separates him from a lot of these other guys too. He doesn’t want to get beat, and if he does he’s going to figure out why and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Likely has never seemed comfortable accepting praise, even from his head coach. Start buying into your own hype, Likely believes, and your performance will inevitably suffer. He told this reporter awhile back that no matter what he accomplishes, he’s never going to stop playing with a chip on his shoulder, a me-against-the-world mentality.
“I’m a competitor,” Likely said. “I want to win every game. I don’t play to lose.”
But Maryland did lose Sept. 13.
Likely doesn’t like to talk about himself anyway, but following a loss he swats away personal accolades even more adeptly than an underthrown deep ball.
“[My play] was alright, but at the end of the day you want to win, so If you don’t win, everything you do, it [doesn’t] matter,” Likely said. “It probably would’ve been different if we’d have won, but at the end of the day we lost.”
So, we have to leave it to Edsall and his teammates to reveal just how much Likely means to Maryland, as a cornerback and return man. Fellow defensive backs JJ Johnson, Sean Davis and Anthony Nixon have spoken highly of Likely in the past, and following the WVU game classmate Yannick Ngakoue became the latest Terps’ defender to chime in.
“[Likely] just brings a lot of energy and he always comes through in key moments when you need him the most,” he said. “And I felt like we needed him the most [Sept. 13], and he showed up and helped us out a lot. He’s a big part of our team.”
Likely’s playmaking began about halfway through the fist quarter when, facing a third-and-7 at the Maryland 9-yard line, Mountaineers receiver Mario Alford tried to make a move for the first-down marker after a short catch. But an alert Likely came in from behind, took a jab at the briefly exposed pigskin, and jarred it loose, allowing Terps linebacker Cole Farrand to recover.
At the time, WVU was already up 7-0 and on the verge of extending its advantage to two touchdowns (which the Mountaineers did accomplish anyway on their next possession).
“[Alford] caught the pass so that’s like a minus for me. I pride myself on not letting the receiver catch the ball, but he was able to do that,” Likely said. “Fortunately [the ball] was there and I got the strip.”
Likely stalled another WVU drive one quarter later, this time via the interception. The Terps had just cut the Mountaineers’ lead to 28-13 on a C.J.-Brown-to-Stefon-Diggs 77-yard touchdown strike, but WVU answered with yet another extended drive to kill some of UMD’s momentum.
‘Neers quarterback Clint Trickett and Co. faced a manageable third-and-5 at the Maryland 39, but the Terps’ pass rush collapsed the pocket, forcing Trickett to make a rare off-kilter over-the-middle throw. The instinctive Likely was in perfect position for the easy pick, keeping it a two-touchdown game and allowing Maryland to eventually cut the advantage to 28-20 right before halftime.
“They ran the same play, the same route [earlier in the drive],” Likely said. “I just read the play and got the pick.”
The Florida native’s third eye-opening play was arguably his most impressive physical feat, though it didn’t result in a turnover (or a stalled WVU drive). Once again shadowing Alford, Likely tracked the speedy slot receiver stride-for-stride downfield before rising up, reaching out and knocking the ball away. A completion would have resulted in a WVU first down inside the Maryland 10-yard line … or maybe even a touchdown.
Four plays later, WVU, aided by a pass interference penalty, did indeed cross the goal line to take a 37-27 third-quarter lead, but that was through no fault of Likely’s.
To that point, though the ‘Neers had racked up the passing yards (mostly picking on UMD corner Alvin Hill), Likely had held Alford and WVU’s star receiver, Kevin White, in-check. It seemed any ball thrown Likely’s way he either kept his man in front or forced an incompletion.
“I mean, you have to look at everybody the same -- no matter if they’re big, small, fast, slow,” Likely said of the WVU receivers he guarded. “I just go out there and try to do my job.”
A pick, a breakup and a forced fumble. That’s quite a nice day for a cornerback, to say the least. But Likely wasn’t Maryland’s special teams player of the year because of his defensive back skills. Doubling as the primary punt returner, Likely atoned for an earlier muff by taking a fourth-quarter boot back 69 yards to the house, tying the game at 37. It was Likely’s second career touchdown and the longest score of his young Maryland career.
“That’s the goal when you’re back there, if you get a chance to return you want to score a touchdown,” said Likely, who took a punt back 63 yards for a touchdown against Virginia Tech last season. “I try to do that every time… Last year I had a few muffs [so] I worked on that a lot this summer, and I’ve gotten better with that.”
Unfortunately for the Terps, Likely couldn’t make one more play to stop the potent WVU “Air Raid” offense. Unfazed by Maryland’s valiant comeback, the Mountaineers put together a clock-chewing 13-play fourth-quarter charge before kicker Josh Lambert, who had his previous field-goal attempt blocked, nailed a last-second 47-yarder as West Virginia escaped College Park with a victory.
“We didn’t finish. That’s our focus this week, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Likely said. “But [the WVU loss] is behind us… we’re looking forward to Syracuse. [SU is] a good team; they beat us last year.”
The end result put a damper on Likely’s career day, and, really, that’s all the Belle Glade native was thinking about after the game. Even so, there had to be something for him to take away from his performance as he and the Terps move forward.
Likely, of course, gave a likely response:
“Yeah, it’s a lesson learned,” he quipped. “Not to lose.”
Likely: 'It Means Nothing If We Don't Win'
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