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Like an ice cream parlor’s flavor of the month, the Maryland football player dubbed the team’s hardest worker seems to rotate regularly. Sometimes the honor falls to Stefon Diggs, the wide receiver’s talent and practice-field ethic a potent combination. Linebacker Yannick Cudjoe-Virgil receives consideration, given his acceleration from Division II transfer to walk-on to monster blitzer. This week, cornerback Will Likely earned the honor and, as a bonus, an avalanche of praise from Coach Randy Edsall.

The way Edsall speaks of the true freshman harkens back to his fawning over Diggs last season, when the local product electrified the ACC in his first season. Yet the similarities end there. Likely hails from Florida, plays on the opposite side of the ball as Diggs and generally handles interviews with extreme seriousness, much like he does college football.

But those comparisons are enough to justify the hype Likely has so effortlessly generated  through three games in College Park. He’s tied for fourth on the team and first among defensive backs with 16 tackles. His 13 solo tackles also lead the Terps. Edsall has employed Likely as a cover corner, edge blitzer and returner. This weekend, he will start inside an NFL stadium against a potent spread offense, tasked with helping guide Maryland to its first win over West Virginia since 2003, when Likely was still in elementary school.

“I think if you just listen to what I’ve said about Will it shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody that he’s gone in and stepped right in and has done the things that we’ve asked him to do on the field,” Edsall said. “Since the day that Will got here, he’s been extremely competitive. He was well coached coming out of high school. He had good fundamentals and he had good technique and all he’s done is just gone out and continue to compete, continue to learn the different fundamentals that we had here and the different techniques that we had. What he’s doing on the field is not a surprise to me or our coaching staff because these are the things that we saw from him when he got here in January.”

Likely, who honed his quickness chasing rabbits down in the Florida Everglades, and whose recruitment turned into a harrowing tale of sugarcane fields, shoddy navigation and a car chase for Edsall and defensive coordinator Brian Stewart, brought a unique level of maturity when he enrolled at Maryland early this spring. He fit neatly into the second team and, once injuries affected both starting cornerbacks this season, has risen into a starting role. Not since muffing a punt in the opener against Florida International has Likely even sniffed an error.

“He plays like he’s a seasoned veteran,” Edsall said. “Will be make mistakes? Yes, just like every player. But it’s not a surprise with how he’s playing. That’s how the kid practices. If we had everybody practicing the way he practices and the way he competes, we’d be even better. That’s not a knock on anybody else. He really competes at a high level. And he practices at a high level and a fast pace each and every day. He’s very knowledgeable, he’s a great listener, he understands it, and he’s one of those guys who puts it behind him once the play’s over. Good, bad or indifferent, he moves onto the next play.”

To wit, Likely has returned four kickoffs and two punts since that late-August afternoon, when he called for a fair catch, drifted back and had the football sail straight through his hands. At Connecticut last weekend, Edsall trusted Likely enough to substitute him in for Diggs on returns.

“It don’t feel different,” Likely would say later. “It’s the same as the first game. I just made a mistake. Just can’t make that mistake again. I just have to bounce back and make plays.”

His resulting production — kickoff returns of 28, 45 and 37 yards – showed that, if Diggs needs a breather, the drop-off isn’t nearly as steep as some might think. Maryland still lists Diggs as its first-string returner on both punts and kickoffs. But if he ever needs a breather, or desires to channel his energy into offense, Likely will be there.

“He definitely lived up to the hype,” Cudjoe-Virgil said. “He’s a hard-working guy. He’s a guy willing to ask questions, always wanting to get better. He’s definitely going to be a key guy in our defense as he assumes a starting role for the rest of the season.”

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