Likely, among the most explosive return men in the nation, torched WVU for a key 69-yard punt return that tied the game at 37-37, capping a Maryland rally from down 28-6 late in the second quarter. It was the highlight of a day filled with them for the then-sophomore, who also had an interception, a fumble recovery and eight tackles in a dominating performance. Likely finished as a first-team All-Big Ten selection after leading the league in kickoff return average at 31 yards, good for fourth-best in the nation.
Tack on the six picks, two returned for scores to tie the UM school record, with a punt return average that ranked third in the conference at 11.1 yards per, and it’s easy to see how the diminutive 5-7, 175-pounder plays much bigger. Obviously West Virginia, with Nick O’Toole’s coffin-corner talents and huge leg, will simply boot the ball out of bounds and surrender possibly 10 yards of field position rather than risk Likely breaking another big one.
“We need to rise to the occasion,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “I don’t think we are just going to tell Nick to kick it out of bounds 10-yards down field. We may have to go for it a few more times, but I think we’ve covered pretty good. Like I said, we have faced some NFL caliber return players in the past, and we need to be able to deal with that. It’s part of the game.”
This brings up an obvious question. It is better to challenge the coverage units against a pro-level skill likely as good as any WVU will see this season, or is it better to take the sure footing and merely boot the ball out of bounds? And what does that say about the mentality of each? It’s a firestorm. If Holgorsen instructs O’Toole to boot it out of bounds, he takes away the aggression the Mountaineers have built into its mindset, which is securely vested in the offense and defense and beginning to be instilled into the special teams. It’s akin to admitting to players they aren’t good enough to cover. But if WVU punts it to Likely and he houses one, well, then the purists would say that was already calculated as too high of a risk, and should have never occurred.
Thus the conundrum facing the Mountaineers over the next 10 days in considering how to handle a Hornung award list player for the most versatile athlete in the college game; Likely is also on the watch lists for the Thorpe (best DB), the Bednarik and Nagurski awards (both for best overall defensive player). Likely has averaged 31.5 yards per punt return this season and already took two of his 10 for scores, including an 85-yarder last week in the 48-27 loss to Bowling Green.
No other player at the FBS level has two punt returns for scores. The 31.5-yard average ranks 5th in the nation, and his 315 yards are the most by any player. Likely fumbled one other punt versus Bowling Green, his lone miscue; UM held the Falcons to two returns for 13 yards. Three other WVU foes, Texas’ Daje Johnson and Iowa State’s Trever Ryen and Allen Lazard, currently rank among the top 15 returners in average.
“I am excited to watch it because we are going to face some pretty good returners throughout the course of the year,” Holgorsen said. “He got us once last year. He is good now. He will take some chances.”
West Virginia’s punt coverage team allowed three yards on the lone return against the Mountaineers this season; WVU is averaging 12 yards per return itself. Its kickoff coverage team is allowing 20.2 yards on 10 returns. O’Toole’s 46.6 yard average, with two touchbacks and four inside the 20, would rank 12th in the nation if he met the minimum 3.6 punts per game average (he has seven total) to rank in the NCAA stat books.
“I am happy with our kickoff (coverage) team right now,” Holgorsen said. “They haven’t got it past the 25 (yard line) this year. We are going to continue to get more speed on that field, and we have some guys that we can put out there to have some more speed on the field. We probably need to do that a little bit more with the punt aspect of it, but I’m happy with where it’s at. I’m happy with the ball placement. We have a true task ahead of us, and it will be fun to watch that and see how we do.”