COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- The offseason “folklore” regarding Terps’ little-big-man Will Likely was almost as tall as he is short, at least when it came to D.J. Durkin's pitch to make sure the 5-foot-7, 175-pound mighty-mite All-American stuck around College Park for one final year.
Durkin didn't inherit a ton in the defensive secondary when he took over last winter, and one guy he could not let slip to the NFL early was Likely, the preseason bundle-of-national-awards-honors-candidate and Terps three-way star.
So the winter buzz was unusually high when it came to decision time for Likely, who before Durkin got unpacked was about 90 percent a lean to go out early after testing the NFL waters.
One December “tale” had Durkin lining up a private jet in his first two weeks on the job at College Park to fly to Florida and meet with the Likely family to convince him to stay.
Fortunately, that never happened as Likely soon announced he would return, which in ways helped salvage the defense -- and team -- for Durkin in Year One.
Not only is the Terps’ starting corner and return ace, who just happens to be on the Paul Hornung, Jim Thorpe, Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik preseason watch-lists for various national honors this summer, a leader on the field, he has emerged as one of the top 2-3 leaders off of it in Durkin's first stable of locker room guys, a list headlined by Jermaine Carter, Perry Hills and Likely.
And Terps fans should be in for a treat this year when Likely plays corner, kick and punt returns, and some receiver/running back as Durkin and staff get the max out of him.
All Likely did last season was rank third nationally in combined return yards (1,197), become the first Terps defensive player to rack up 3,000 career all-purpose yards, while he ranked sixth on the team in tackles with 44 while chipping in four tackles for loss, 11 breakups and three forced fumbles. Meanwhile, to name a few, his 100-yard kick return and score at Iowa, and his 85-yard punt return for a score versus Bowling Green, were some highlights in an otherwise forgettable season for the 3-9 Terps.
Now, Likely is the old soul on a Terps' backline that just got a lot stronger this month with the addition of another Floridian, former Gators’ transfer J.C. Jackson, a former four-star corner/athlete who did a year's stint at junior college last season and projects to start opposite Likely at the other corner spot by the time the season rolls around in a few weeks.
Likely was in a gold safety jersey and not fully participating Aug. 10, simply as a precaution, coming off winter labrum surgery, for which he missed the spring. But there was no denying the excitement now in the Terps once-thin secondary..
And no denying Likely is back, and in all ways.
"It feels good," Likely said with a smile on Day One of media availability. "I am very excited to be back in camp, off to a fast start, and just trying to keep it on."
Likely rolled his eyes and quipped when asked about the proposed Durkin trip last winter to Belle Glades, saying he made up his mind first, which eased lots of Terps minds in and around College Park.
"It was very difficult, but I knew I was in good hands," Likely said of his decision. "To have very good to have a coach like that....I mean, he is a great coach, and you guys saw what he did at other schools and what he is all about."
Durkin and staff are bringing more of an attack mode defense, with loads of 'man' coverage as opposed to last year's more zone look. Likely is the Terps' stickiest cover man, and despite his lack of height, it's most fearless competitor.
"We are just playing, balling out there and having fun. And there is way more 'man' coverage this year for sure," Likely said of the new scheme under Andy Buh.
As for Jackson, who can also play three ways as well if needed, Likely loves the prospect of teaming with a Sunshine State native who he knew before arriving at College Park.
"He's a great player, I am very happy to have him, and happy to have him on our team," Likely said. "He does everything well: he can get to the ball real fast, his coverage, and i knew him before and he is still the same guy, He's fast, physical, 'Florida attitude.' So it's good to have him on the team."
Likely said there is a new attitude around the team, and "we're just ready, not looking back on next year, and just coming out ready to play. Everybody is ready to play like their heads are on fire."
Likely especially, given two of Maryland's first three games are on the road in his native state, with FIU and UCF early Terps foes this fall. The Terps are practicing at the height of the heat as much as they can this month to try and better acclimate for what's to come down south in a few weeks.
Likely likes the new look of the secondary, which also has him playing some nickel; has former corner Darnell Savage running at safety; and the two first-time starters at the safety spots, Josh Woods and Denzel Conyers, who big things are expected of this season in their debut starts. Then there is senior corner Alvin Hill, who filled in for Likely on Day One this week, and senior corner Jarrett Ross, among others.
"They are doing very well," Likely said of the safeties. "They had the whole spring to learn the defense, so this wasn't really a first day. They are just ready to get back on the field and they have been working hard all summer.
"And the secondary, i like it, the versatility, because we have all the secondary guys now to do it. And whatever I can to do help them team, well that makes me not stationary, so you never know where I am at. So you have to account for that. And then the guys on the edge can make plays, so it's hard to stop a defense like that."
Likely averaged 118.8 yards per game last season all-purpose, including catching five balls for 17 yards and rushing 11 times for 93 yards. He amassed 789 kick return yards and 408 punt return yards, scoring three times total.
Said Durkin this week of the usually soft-spoken Likely, who would much rather play than talk a big game:
"Will Likely, I can't say enough of the role he's taken on as a leader, I'm very proud of him for that," Durkin said.