Stefon Diggs was one of the greatest recruits to ever land in College Park, and his performance has arguably surpassed the hype. The sophomore has shattered records and broken tackles and could wind up on “SportsCenter” every time he touches the ball. He is, according to Terrapins defensive coordinator Brian Stewart, an example of expectations aligning with reality.
Stewart drew this comparison when discussing another touted freshman on Wednesday afternoon. Cornerback Will Likely leads the Terrapins with 14 tackles through two games. After arriving at Maryland a semester early this spring, the Florida native has become the team’s nickel cornerback and key blitzter in dime packages. He’s the backup punt returner and kick returner. He’s 5 feet 7 but capable of defending receivers a half-foot taller. He, too, is an example of expectations aligning with reality.
“No, I always thought he was a special player,” Stewart said when asked if Likely surprised him. “I think special players, that’d just be like asking when you have Stefon Diggs, did you expect him to do the things he did? You kind of did. So Will, I think he’s doing a great job. I think he’s a special player.”
During his recruitment process, when Likely also fielded interest from Florida, Florida State, Miami, LSU and Louisville, Maryland pointed toward Diggs to exemplify the opportunity that awaited Likely. Sure enough, Likely’s chance came when cornerback Jeremiah Johnson left the season opener against Florida International with a fractured toe. Likely started the next week against Old Dominion, disrupted quarterback Taylor Heinicke in the pocket and led the team in tackles.
Now he and his classmates face their first road trip of the season this Saturday at Connecticut. Stewart said he’s stoked for what may come.
“They’re good,” he said. “I’m excited for some of those young guys like Will. He’s never been to U-Conn. He’s going to be pretty excited for those guys, the plane ride, getting off the plane, getting to the stadium. If I’m taking pictures, I’m taking pictures of those young guys’ faces.”
>> Stewart’s familiarity with dime packages dates to his days at the University of Houston, where the Cougars routinely faced spread offenses employed by the likes of Southern Methodist and East Carolina.
“When there are spread teams,” Stewart said, “I think you want the fastest people on the field. That was my thought process and [Coach Randy Edsall's] thought process the whole time. We’re going to put the fastest people on the field.”
This is why six defensive backs started against Old Dominion, as did backup defensive lineman Roman Braglio. Stewart said he wanted to run the dime package at times last season, but lacked the depth to do so.
“That was the key, actually, the depth,” he said. “We had the depth to stay in dime and substitute [against ODU]. That was the problem we had last year. If we were going to run a package like that, we couldn’t stay in it throughout the whole game. We had to fluctuate in and out mainly because of the depth.”
The tradeoff meant benching regulars like linebacker Cole Farrand and defensive lineman Darius Kilgo, at least for one game. Maryland should employ similar looks against West Virginia and Clemson later this season. Stewart said he saw no pouting among the players who took a back seat against the Monarchs.
“I think if you’re a true team player, and you feel and you understand our package and what we were trying to do, you see where you fit and things that don’t fit,” he said. “They did a good job of practicing hard and helping and noticing things on the sidelines that was happening in the games.”
>> Johnson may still be sidelined for the next six to seven weeks, relegated to a walking boot and crutches, but he remains a vital cog in Maryland’s secondary. He still attends defensive backs meetings and hosts voluntary meetings to help underclassmen.
“He still does the same things that he did when he was out there,” Stewart said. “He’s doing a great job. He’s just a great kid, great person. We miss his play, but we want him out there helping.”
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