With CB Jeremiah Johnson out, freshman Will Likely has big opportunity

September 9, 2013
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As the punt tumbled down, Will Likely drifted back. He could see opportunity in that moment, both for himself and the Maryland football team. The Terrapins sometimes removed Stefon Diggs from punt returns last season, protecting their most prized asset from such vulnerable, exposed situations. So maybe that’s why they tabbed Likely to field their first punt of 2013. Or maybe, as Coach Randy Edsall would later reveal, a miscommunication sent a freshman into that high-pressure situation, the football falling end-over-end, the Florida International coverage team barreling down upon Likely.

Except Likely misjudged the punt. It was coming down over his head. So he turned and ran. He tried to ensnare it, Willie Mays-style, but it flopped away instead, straight into Florida International’s arms. The Panthers took over at the Maryland 15-yard line and converted the turnover into a field goal. The score was 6-3.

Likely wouldn’t field another punt that afternoon. But his college debut brought three tackles, one for a loss, one pass breakup and one teaching moment.

“Last week is the past,” he said Saturday. “That’s last week. But when my name was called, I was ready to go out and make something happen.”

The following week, starting in Maryland’s dime package against Old Dominion, Likely earned the defensive game ball with a team-high 11 tackles and another pass breakup. He wreaked havoc off the edge, often showing press coverage then blitzing on the snap. The Terps intercepted Taylor Heinicke three times in the first half.

“We put pressure on him, made him rattle up, and the ball came out quick,” he said. “He couldn’t really focus. That’s a good thing for us.”

With cornerback Jeremiah Johnson potentially sidelined until November with a fractured toe, Likely becomes the No. 3 corner behind Dexter McDougle and Isaac Goins. This means, in part, extended time against spread offenses West Virginia and Clemson without the lifeline of Johnson’s services. But the former Florida Gatorade Player of the Year has proven himself capable of handling diverse assignments, from coverage to blitzes, and has been Maryland’s top freshman performer by far through two games.

“I thought Will tackled well, I thought Issac tackled well too,” Edsall said. “But again our guys have the philosophy that hey you got to be ready to go. It’s unfortunate that JJ wasn’t out there … But I think we got a team that really understands that we have got to be ready to play at any given moment, and I’ve got to make sure that I go in and play as good or better as the guy that I’m replacing. I’m proud of our guys because they have that kind of mentality, and they’re showing it when they get the opportunities.”

A humble workhorse from rabbit-chasing stock, Likely redeemed himself in the return game too. Early in the fourth quarter, he broke loose a 27-yard punt return, scooting from the Maryland 29-yard line to near midfield. After Darius Kilgo’s safety, Likely took the ensuing kickoff 43 yards, again into Old Dominion territory.

Likely may only receive returns during garbage time. Diggs, Edsall said, is still the primary option. But Likely has already proven himself indispensable in the secondary, especially as Maryland plods forward missing one regular starter.

“I wasn’t too excited,” Likely said, when asked receiving his first career start. “At the end of the day, if I don’t do my job, I don’t care how excited I am. I’m not contributing to the defense.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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Alex Prewitt · September 9, 2013