UPDATE (12:18 p.m.): Likely won the ACC’s co-rookie of the week award after finishing with 179 all-purpose yards, including Maryland’s first punt return touchdown since Oct. 2, 2010. The original post is below.
Last week, Coach Randy Edsall lavished praise on Will Likely and wished for “a hundred” of the freshman cornerback. On Saturday, just one was enough to turn the tide of the Terrapins’ 27-24 victory over Virginia Tech that might have a residual effect on the rest of the season.
The offense was struggling, a predictable outcome given its stagnancy since ACC play began and Virginia Tech’s highly rated defense. Midway through the second quarter, Hokies punter A.J Hughes lined up around his 7-yard line and took the snap. Maryland needed a jolt, and Likely knew from watching film that Hughes often out-kicked his gunners, exposing holes through the middle. “He’s a great punter,” Likely said later. “But sometimes he gives you time to catch the ball and try to do what you do.”
Likely had ranked among the conference’s best kickoff returners, even before Stefon Diggs suffered a season-ending broken leg against Wake Forest in mid-October. Maryland hadn’t clocked a touchdown on special teams all year, but here was his chance to erase that smudge.
“Boy, how about Likely so far in this ballgame,” a television analyst said as Likely lined up deep. The cornerback had just broken up a pass on third down to force a third straight punt in the second quarter. “You talked about the young freshman and what a big-time athlete he was. He’s a big-time player.”
Those words proved prophetic. The Floridian fielded the punt on his 37-yard line, between the left hash-mark and the Virginia Tech bench. The coverage barreled down towards him, anticipating Likely move up the left sideline, but he took one step towards the left and juked right, leaving two Hokies defenders grasping for air.
He broke another tackle, outran two more defenders, sidestepped Hughes, shed diving linebacker Dahman McKinnon then sprinted into the end zone, untouched for the final 35 yards.
“I thought this year, it was only going to be a matter of time for Will to take one back, be it a punt return or kick return,” Edsall said. “That got us going. That got us a little motivated even more.”
Likely currently ranks fourth in the ACC in punt return average (13.8) and fifth in kick return average (25.5). Once cursed with fumbling issues during non-conference play, Likely has become a reliable home run threat on every return, earning in-game exaltation on Twitter from the man he succeeded.
Willie beamennnnn let’s gooooooo
— ACE (@StefonDiggss) November 16, 2013
A silent lead-by-example type, Likely has become the paragon of Edsall’s desirable player. Each week seems to bring new praise from the coaching staff for the recruit they lured away from several SEC offers. As Likely sat inside the visiting interview room, deep inside of Lane Stadium, he seemed almost unmoved by hearing of his coach’s comments. All in a day’s work, he shrugged.
“I look at it as a good thing,” Likely said. “Every day I try to come out to get better, try to take no days off, because you only get so many days, so many opportunities. I try to take advantage of my opportunities and learn something new.”