CHICAGO — Maryland defensive back Will Likely was thinking of leaving school early for the NFL draft when he first ran into new Terrapins Coach DJ Durkin last December. Likely was one of the first players Durkin met with, but neither knew what the future held for their relationship on the field.
When Likely decided to return to school for his senior season about a month later, he immediately became the cornerstone of a roster that will return 15 starters. It is a core of players that endured a midseason coaching change and the depression of a 3-9 finish a year ago, but Durkin is confident that the players he inherits from the Randy Edsall era will give him a competitive first season in College Park.
It starts with Likely, the 5-foot-7 dynamo who has landed on preseason watch lists for four national awards (Bednarik Award, Nagurski Trophy, Jim Thorpe Award, Wuerffel Trophy). He is expected to again be one of the country’s most electrifying players at both defensive back and as a returner, but Durkin is also planning to use him on offense.
“I think [Likely] will be a guy that has involvement in all three phases of our game for sure,” Durkin said during his news conference at Big Ten media days on Tuesday morning. “How much and to what those are all decisions we’ll make as we work through camp here and decide what’s best for our team and what he can handle. But he’s a dynamic guy. I know from coaching the other sideline against Will, one of my biggest concerns or worries was when he had the ball in his hands.”
“I can be a decoy, I can catch the ball, I can run,” Likely said. “I want to get it to a point where…I know the whole offense. If I know the whole offense, then it will help me better my game , not only as an offensive person. It will help me understand offense more while I’m playing defense to. So it kind of works hand and hand together.”
Likely finished with 44 tackles in 2015, including four tackles for losses, three forced fumbles and a team-high 11 pass breakups. That came after a breakout sophomore campaign in 2014, when Likely registered 83 tackles and tied for the conference lead with six interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns.
He added three more touchdowns on returns in 2015, two on punts and one a kickoff. He finished third in the country with 1,197 combined return yards, first in the Big Ten in punt return average (17.7) and set a conference record with 233 punt return yards in last year’s season opener against Richmond. After Edsall was fired in October, Maryland’s staff built an offensive package that placed Likely in both the backfield and slot. His most dazzling play came on a 44-yard run in a loss to Wisconsin. He finished with 93 rushing yards on 11 carries in the final five games, sitting out the finale against Rutgers due to an ankle injury.
Durkin will have to certainly monitor Likely’s workload and his durability, given his value as a defensive back and returner, but the prospect of the senior playing in Walt Bell’s new up-tempo spread offense is an enticing one.
“We definitely want to take advantage of that,” Durkin said, “and use him to the best of our team’s ability as much as we can.”